RTI yet to make govt accountable

If you want to reduce the number of RTI applications, increase proactive disclosures and appoint more PIOs

Venkatesh Nayak | January 15, 2015




In the 10th year of the implementation of the RTI law, the experience has been mixed but tilting more towards positive effects. Even though there are many problems that plague the implementation process, for me the single biggest achievement of this law is the sheer number of people who file RTI applications and a majority of them seeking information which is about public interest. This is the biggest strength of any constitutional or democratic process.

And nowhere in the world, have so many people requested for information in a given year.

When we look at the other side of the picture, the amount of the effort that the government should put to ensure transparency is not similar to what it would do to collect tax.

My ideal vision for the government is that the various departments, on a regular basis, should do an assessment of the kind of the RTI applications they are receiving. They should look at the patterns of the information sought, identify frequently asked categories of information and then make efforts to disclose all of that proactively on their websites and through other mediums. This will surely reduce the number of RTI applications.

The purpose of the information Act, apart from transparency, was to bring about accountability. Have government departments tried to use the RTI law as the feedback to re-engineer government’s decision-making process? There is very little evidence of that.

The third thing that hasn’t really happened, which was one of the objectives of the RTI Act, is to curb corruption. Has that really happened? Yes, in a big way in the initial years when people fought corruption at various level of democracy. In recent years as well various big-ticket corruption scams have been unearthed through RTI, for instance, those related to Commonwealth Games and Adarsh Housing scams. But we are still struggling with strengthening of our anti-corruption agencies and trying to make them more effective. There is still a major battle to be won. We still do not have a lokpal. There are government and systemic reforms which haven’t really materialised.

Lessons learnt

The first lesson that we have learnt is something that has become very starkly visible. It is that a law will not implement itself unless efforts are put in. And here I would say with absolute certainty that the single biggest driver of the implementation of the RTI Act has been the citizen. The law had expected that the government would be the driver of the Act and the access to information will not be on need-to-know basis. Civil society has also not constantly been at the forefront of agitations and the efforts to get this law implemented effectively. More importantly, we did not take the battle to the legislators themselves.

Our efforts have not been adequate at two levels. First, we have not used the law as a means to provide feedback to our law makers. For instance, I would like to know which information commission’s report has been discussed either in parliament or in a state legislative assembly. Ideally, organisations should have made a hue and cry about using the mechanism to access the performance of every department seeking grants. Here we should put in a lot of effort to ensure transparency in departments dealings and connect it with grants. The implementation of the Act unfortunately has been left to the junior-most level of the bureaucracy.

Another point where we have not paid much attention is to improve the quality and quantity of proactively disclosed information.

Then there is the demand to make information accessible through the internet. A lot more is required to make information accessible not just through the internet but through many other ways, and at all levels. How much government information is being made available on the public domain on its own and without any reference to the RTI? There is quite a bit. The MGNREGA and NRHM portals are good examples of that. But that should be extended to other departments, ministries and cabinet, as well. Other ministries should really improve on proactive disclosures.

Getting public feedback through a website (mygov.in) is a good exercise where the government is asking people how to improve skill development, cleanliness and labour laws. But in all these efforts it is assumed that people have a clear idea about what needs to be changed. Consultations should be done after people are informed.

One of the few things that the NDA did immediately after assuming charge was to abolish the group of ministers. I filed two rounds of RTI applications asking for a copy of that order. I asked for the copy of the order and the cabinet note. But I was told that a decision has been taken, and the cabinet ratified it. There has been no disclosure of reasons for doing that.

Even in the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna, there is no basic project document in the public domain. People should be informed about these things. There is a basic project document of the Indira awaas yojana. If such information is not put in the public domain how would you hold the government accountable? Furthermore, just putting a complex document in public domain is not enough. The policy should be explained in a manner which is easily understood by people.

Despite the BJP promising transparency in a big way and implementing RTI more effectively, nothing much has been done so far.

You cannot implement any law without adequate resource allocation and technical expertise. There have been no efforts to work on any of these lacunae to ensure that the dream of transforming a regime of secrecy to regime of transparency is fulfilled.

With the greatest respect for the supreme court it must be said that the very pro-transparency stand that was visible in a whole range of judgments of the supreme court till 2005, is not really visible since then. There have been at least about 15-16 judgments on the issue of RTI where SC seems to be taking a very conservative attitude.

Appointments of commissioners

The best of people can be identified in the 10th year of RTI to be appointed as commissioners. One criterion which is never used while identifying candidates is what has been the candidates’ contribution to promote transparency. In fact, there have been no criteria for selection and it is only a political patronage. And the moment they become commissioners, they start thinking of themselves like courts and they take a ‘balanced’ view on transparency. They often don’t realise that this law is not about hiding information and the primary purpose is to give information.

If you want to reduce the number of RTI applications, there is a need to increase proactive disclosure and to appoint more PIOs.
 
Impact of RTI law

We plan to bring in some high quality researchers from other countries where academics have been assessing the performance of the governments based on transparency factors. We want to see if we can develop some parameters locally and practise the same.
Another thing is related to the post-2015 agenda on sustainable development where justice is increasingly being advocated as one of the goals. And this can be ascertained by accessing how much proactive disclosure has been made by the government.
The biggest achievement or the positive effect that the RTI has brought is the adoption of pre-legislative consultation where the law department issues a notification saying that a committee of secretaries, which is the second highest decision-making body in India after the cabinet, agreed that henceforth all new laws and amendments to existing laws would be made through a consultative process. There would be a 30-day period for public consultation. Also, to an extent even during the budget-making exercise, various stakeholders are being involved, particularly in areas of gender issues or child budgeting.

Nayak is coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. He spoke to Jasleen Kaur.

(The story appeared in January 1-15, 2015, issue)
 

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