RIGHT TO INFORMATION
– By Gagan Patidar*
Right to Information means the freedom of people to have access to Government Informations. For this Government passed Right to Information Act, an Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of RTI for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities ,in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority , the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commission and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
In 1992, the World Bank released a document entitled, ‘Governance and Development’. The document has mentioned seven aspects or elements of Governance-one of them being transparency and information.
The right to information is necessary due to the following reasons:
1. It makes administration more accountable to people.
2. It reduces the distance between administration and people.
3. It makes people aware of administrative decision-making.
4. It facilitates constructive criticism of administration.
5. It facilitates better delivery of goods and services to people by civil servants.
6. It increases people’s participation in administration.
7. It promotes public interest by discouraging arbitrariness in administrative decision-making.
8. It reduces the scope for corruption in public administration.
9. It upholds the democratic ideology by promoting openness and transparency in administration.
10. It makes administration more responsive to the requirements of people.
11. It reduces the chanceof abuse ofAuthority by the public servants.
Thefollowing statements made by eminent administrative thinkers and practitioners highlight the importanceof right to information:
Woodrow Wilson : “I for one have the conviction that Government ought to be all outside and not inside. I, for my part, believe that there ought to be no placewhere everything can be done that everyone does not know about. Everyone knows corruption thrives in secret places and avoids public places.”
Lord Acton : “Nothing is safe that does not show that it can bear discussion and publicity.”
Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce the right to information. It had conferred this right on its citizens through a direct constitutional provision, way back in 1766. In this country, access to Government documents is a right and non-access an exception.
Sweden was followed by other Scandinavian countries viz. Finland enacted the freedom of Information legislation in 1951. Both Denmark and Norway have made the similar legislations in the same year (1970).
USAhas granted the right to Information to its citizens by the Freedom of Information Act (1966). This act was amended in 1974 for two purposes: (i) to limit the exemptions (the documents which the administration may keep in secret); and (ii) to provide for penalties for withholding the information or acting in an arbitrary manner.
France, Netherlands and Austria have made the similar legislations in the 1970s. Canada,Australia and New Zealand have done it in 1982. Thailand and Ireland have made the law in the same year 1997.
In SouthAfrica, theRight to Information is guaranteed by the constitution itself. This right of the citizens has been further reinforced by enacting legislation in 2000.
In Britain,the Fulton Committee (1966-68)found too much of secrecy in public administration. Hence, it recommended an enquiry into the Official Secrets Act, 1911. In 1972, the Franks Committee also made the similar recommendation. Hence, in 1988, the Act was amended to narrow the scope of officialinformation falling within its ambit. Finally, the UK Freedom of Information Act came into force on January 1, 2005 .
RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT IN INDIA
In 2005, the Parliament has enacted a new legislation- the Right To Information Act(2005). The new legislation confers on allcitizens the right of access to the information and, correspondingly, makes the dissemination of such information an obligation on allpublic authorities. It aims at promoting transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.It has the widest possible reach covering Central Government, State Governments, Panchayati Raj Institutions, Local bodies and recipients of Government grants. Its various provisions are mentioned below:
1. It provides for the appointmentof an information officer in each department to provide information to the public on request.
2. It fixes a 30-day deadline for providing information; deadline is 48 hours if information concerns life or liberty of a person.
3. Information will be free for people below poverty line. For others,fee will be reasonable.
4. The Act imposes obligation on public agencies to disclose the information suo-motu to reduce request for information.
5. Government bodies have to publish details of staffpayments and budgets.
6. It provides for the establishment of a Central Information Commission and StateInformation Commissions to implement the provisions of the Act. They will be independent high-level bodies to act as appellate authorities and vested with the powers of a civil court.
7. The President will appoint a Chief Information Commissioner and governers of state will appoint state information commissioners. Their term will be five years.
8. The Chief Information Commissioner (on par with the status currently accorded to the chief election commissioner) will be selected by a panel comprising the Prime Minister, leader Of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a Minister nominated by the Prime Minister.
9. The Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissionerwillpublish an annualreport on the implementation of the Act. These reports will be tabled before Parliament and State Legislature.
10. TheAct overrides theOfficialSecrets Act, 1923.The information commissions can allow access to the information ifpublic interest outweighs harm to protected persons.
11. It carries strict penalties for failing to provide information or affectingits flow.The erringofficials willbe subjectto departmental proceedings.
12. Theinformation commission shall finean officialRs 250 per day (subject to a maximum of Rs 25,000) if information is delayed without reasonable cause beyond the stipulated 30 days.
13. The procedure of appealin case the information is denied is like this- firstappeal to superior of Public Information Officer, second appeal to Information Commission, and third appeal to High Court.
14. Its purview does not extend to intelligence and security organizations like Intelligence Bureau, RAW, BSF, CISF,NSG and so on. However, information pertaining t allegations of corruption or violation of human rights by these organizations will not be excluded.
15. All categories of exempted information to be disclosed after 20 years except cabinet deliberations and information that affects security, strategic, scientific or economic interests,relations with foreign states or leads to incitement of offence.
STATE INFORMATION ACTS
Even before the Centrallegislation was passed, some of the states have introduce their own right to information legislation. The first amongst these was Tamil Nadu: The states and the respective years of the enactment of legislation are mentioned below.
Tamil Nadu (1997),Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Karnataka (2000),Delhi (2001), Maharashtra*(2002), Assam (2002),Madhya Pradesh(2003),Jammu & Kashmir (2004).
*Maharashtra repealed its earlier Right to Information Act of 2000 to bring out an improved one in 2002.
In Rajasthan, the right to information movement was initiated by Aruna Roy in the early 1990s. The MazdoorKisan ShaktiSangathan (MKSS) succeeded through struggle and agitation, in accessing and using information to put an end to localcorruption and exploitation. MKSS adopted themeans ofplacing thedisclosed information (whatever could be elicited) in the public domain through live wire village based public hearing colloquially referred as jan sunwais. This movement raised famous slogans like hamara paisa , hamara hisaab (our money , our account) and hum janenge, hum jiyenge (we will know, we will live). Overall it can be safely asserted that transparency and accountability were the two pronged demands of the movement, which they wanted to be instilled in the system as whole.
ACHIEVEMENTS/SUCCESS STORIES OF THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, 2005
There have been several success stories too which corroborate the claims of the good done by the Act Allcitizens shall have the right to information.1 This statement heralds the novelty which RTI Act has succeeded in bringing to the fore. Various provisions such as disposal of requestwithin aspecific timeframe i.e.30 days2 reflectthe importance of the right. Simultaneously italso emphasizes on theresponsibility that need to be shown by the authorities. Similarly, imposition of penalties3, reporting and monitoring by the Information Commissions4, are commendable efforts which willfructify if implemented sincerely.
Let us now see some of the success stories which also display the change that RTI has brought in the lives of the people. Krishak Mukti Sangram SamitiinAssam used Right to Information to expose diversion of food grains from PDS allotted to the poor.5 Women in asmallvillage, Banakhandi, in West Bengal filed more than 100 Right to Information applications to force the administration to start work on supply of drinking water.6 Students forced Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) to disclose cut-offmarks, scalingmethod and modelanswers.7 CIC in a recent decision gave access to, not just your answer sheets, but also your class mate’s answer sheets, after evaluation.8 These are just some of the few incidents which reveal the betterment brought upon by theenactment ofRTIAct, which would have not been possible in the absence of the state.
It should however be kept in mind that, under theAct, where a citizen has exhausted the remedy of appealor second appeal, the finality given to the orders of the Commissioners and Appellate Authorities is only for the purposes of theAct and the citizen has a right to approach the High Court underArticle 226 of the Constitution of India or where it refers to a fundamentalright, hemay even approach theSupreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India.9
RIGHT TO INFORMATION AND GOOD GOVERNANCE
Success of a democratic framework depends on Good Governance. It can be achieved by efficient and effective administration.As pera paper prepared by the Human Rights Initiative, Good Governance has eight major facets. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. RTI is one of the most important methods of attainment of Good Governance, which is necessary for ensuring sustainablehuman development.
Corruption is major hindrance in the growth of any system. Dangers are more in a democratic system, where development of people who have reposed their faith by electing the Government to power does not takes place. Conditions become more aggravated when basic information related to the people is not disclosed in the garb of maintenance of secrecy. In fact this culture of secrecy breeds nepotism and increases corruption to an obnoxious level. Information therefore is an antidote to corruption10.It limits the abuseof discretion and protects civil liberties.
The whole relation of RTI and “Good Governance” finds its mention in the address of the Prime Minister of India, who, while piloting the Bill for its passage by the National Parliament, stated, as under, on May 11, 2005 :
“I believe that the passage of this Bill willsee the dawn of a new era in our processes of Governance, an era of performance and efficiency, an era which will ensure that benefits of growth flow to all sections of our people, an era which will eliminate the scourge of corruption, an era which will bring the common man’s concern to theheart ofallprocesses of Governance, an era which will truly fulfill the hopes of the founding fathers of our Republic.”
PERFORMANCE OF THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, 2005
The passage of RTI Act has up to a certain extent infused transparency and accountability in the working of public departments. This has increased the efficiency of decision making process. This has led to reduction in corruption in the country as evident from the following:
i) The Transparency International (TI) has reported that perceived corruption in India (a score of 3.5 out of 10)has declined at the rate of about 15-20 per cent per year, due mainly to the implementation of the RTI Act.
ii) The Centre forMedia Studies in collaboration with TIhas recently accomplished an allIndiasurvey study (un-published) ofthe poor below the poverty line. The views of the poor have been elicited in respect of all the flagship programmes that have been implemented for alleviation of poverty. At least 40 per cent of the respondents have reported that corruption has declined.
iii) It has also been observed that wherever NGOs are actively involved in the development activities, the perceived corruption is abysmally low.
The progress of RTI Act has been studied by PRIA (Society for Participatory Research in Asia) in August 2006. In order to track the progress of RTIAct in 12 states (HimachalPradesh,Haryana Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh,Kerala, Gujarat and Bihar),PRIA decided to conduct astudy on a setof indicators namely theconstitution ofState Information Commission and its role, roleof Nodalagencies, appointmentof PIOs, experience of seeking information from PIOs, mandatory disclosure undersection IVof RTIAct and role ofGovernment in educating people under Section 26 of the Act. The study indicated the following results, which are discussed in very brief manner as following:-
• The constitution of SIC in some states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, the constitution of SIC was delayed by several months.
• Inadequate infrastructure and working staff has been provided to the SIC.
• There has been a generaltendency ofnon imposition of penalties on the PIOs11 who have indulged in dereliction of duty.
• People belonging to rural areas feel that appeal process is very expensive.
• Public Information Officers have been appointed in most public authorities in the states. The process of accessing information by people has started slowly through Right to Information Act. However, there exits great confusion in definition of public authority.
• Most of the PIOs at state level and district level are not cooperative and they sometimes threaten applicants to withdraw applications.PIOs should be given more training so that they are sensitive to people’s need and PIOs who are guilty of deliberate denialofinformation should be penalized.
• Most of the Ministries and Directorate level offices in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and Andhra Pradesh have disclosed information abouttheir activities on theirwebsite, while some are stilllagging. Department of Agriculture (Rajasthan, UP, Uttaranchal, AP) has done well in self disclosure, have covered most of the items of Section 4 of RTI Act.
• It is surprising to find that self-disclosure at district, block and panchayat level have not started in the twelve states, so the departments, which arecloser to the peopleare stilllagging behind in the implementation of s.4 of the Act.
• It is quite striking that unawareness about RTI in rural areas is very highly. The applications within the Act are mostly file the educated classes and urban people. The percentage of people still oblivious about provisions of theAct and more importantly about their right is very high.
“The Right to know is not meant for gratifying idle curiosity or mere inquisitiveness but is essential for the effective functioning of democracy. Transparency and accountability are sine qua non in a genuine democracy.” 12
– Soli J. Sorabjee
Importance of the information is very aptly echoed in the words of James Madison who said, “Knowledge willfor ever govern ignorance and people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with thepower knowledgegives.Apopular Governmentwithout popular information is or the means of obtaining it, is but a prologue to a force or tragedy or perhaps both.” India now can proudly proclaim that its citizens today have been conferred with specific RTI, which will surely lead them towards the path of development. Although there are still some shortcoming butit can not be allowed to dominate thegrowth of a healthy democratic atmosphere-especially in a country which happens to be the largest democracy in the world.
Combating corruption which has been a majorconcern for our country for decades has a solution potentially in the hands of RTI. Itis therefore, quite safe to assert that RTI is a means as well as end to achieve democracy in its truest meaning.This can be achieved by development of a comprehensive information management system and by the promotion ofinformation literacy among themasses. This willpositively lead to ultimate realization of the objectives of RTI viz. transparency and accountability. An informed citizenry is a condition precedent to democracy.
Prime Minister of India, emphasizing on the importance of RTI in the governance of country, reflected the culmination of what was a sporadically vehement movement initiated by the otherwise disempowered masses. He said,” Four years ago I said to you that an important challenge we face is the challenge of providing good governance. We have taken several steps to make Government transparent, efficient and responsive. The Right to Information Act was one major step. We have initiated reform and modernization of Government.”
“In Government of responsibility like our’s where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, their can be but a few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act , everything that is done in a public way by the public functionaries… The responsibility of officials to explain or to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression and corruption”
– Justice K.K. Mathew , Supreme Court of India
(State of U.P. v Raj Narain, AIR 1975 SC 865)
• The Hindu.
• The Gazette of India.
• Public administration – by Laxmikanth.