October 12th 2005 was indeed a historic day for India. The UPA Government gave the country a long-awaited much appreciated gift in the passing and implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005. This law is meant “to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.”When it was ushered, Indian citizens from across the board cheered because many were convinced that this was the one instrument needed in order to deal with the rampant corruption that had permeated every section of the Government. The Right to Information Act is comprehensive in nature.
• The basic object of this Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense. It goes without saying that an informed citizen is better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed. The Act is a step towards making the citizens informed about the activities of the Government.
• Information is any material, in any form. It includes records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form. It also includes information relating to any private body which can be accessed by the public authority under any law for the time being in force.
• A “public authority” is any authority or body or institution of self government established or constituted by or under the Constitution; or by any other law made by the Parliament or a State Legislature; or by notification issued or order made by the Central Government or a State Government. The bodies owned, controlled or substantially financed by the Central Government or a State Government and NGOs substantially financed by the Central Government or a State Government also fall within the definition of public authority.
Common man in Focus
In April 2010, five years after the launch of the RTI, Mr. Wajahat Habibullah, the then Chief Information Commissioner of India, speaking at a Seminar on ‘Challenges in making RTI more effective,’ organised by ‘PRASHANT’ in Ahmedabad said, “The Act seeks to shift the focus back to the common man. By this process we seek to bring people of India to the centre of governance; however, we have not yet achieved that purpose, but we are moving in that direction. A recent study showed that over 40 per cent of RTI users are people who are uneducated and illiterate. The level of public awareness about the RTI Act is not as high as it should be.”
Ten years down the road, one needs to admit that there have been both plus and minus points in the implementation and the mainstreaming of this right. Several in the UPA at that time did not realise the potency of this Act and how the ordinary citizen would use it to expose corruption, particularly in high places. Thanks to the RTI and the efforts of several activists and whistleblowers, the people of India were made more aware of corruption in the Government. Several scams were unearthed which provided ammunition for the Opposition and one of the reasons why the UPA was defeated at the hustings in 2004.
All is not well
Thanks to the RTI, today several Government officials are a bit more wary about corruption. That does not mean to say that all is well and particularly with RTI activists. On 31 October, an RTI activist Mallikarjun Bhaikatti, from Latur in Maharashtra through an RTI query revealed that around 14000 sq. ft. illegal construction was carried out in a four-storey building and boy’s hostel on the Latur – Nanded Road. He held a Press Conference to expose
this illegal construction.
The Shiv Sainiks there were not at all amused. They assaulted Bhaikatti and smeared ink on his face in the presence of around 4000 students at Latur College. This incident is not a one-off. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) a leading NGO published a revealing report in September, stating “there have been as many as 289 attacks on RTI activists including instances of murder, assault, kidnapping and receiving threatening calls; only in Maharashtra ten RTI activists have been killed in the last ten years apart from fifty other attacks. Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have witnessed the death of six RTI activists each in the same period”.
Amit Jethawa was shot dead on 21 July, 2010 by unidentified motorcycle-borne men near the Gujarat High Court, Ahmedabad. Jethawa had filed several petitions in the Gujarat High Court against the Forest Department and also against illegal mining by a BJP MLA in the Gir Forest. Shehla Masood was shot dead outside her residence in Bhopal because she had filed RTI applications against dozens of corrupt Government officials. In most cases where RTI activists have been killed or assaulted, practically no one has been brought to book. It is common knowledge that only a Government official or politician could be responsible for such heinous acts.
There is also an apparent lethargy in the way RTI queries keep piling up. A recent report from the Central Information Commission (CIC) highlights that the number of requests pending with public authorities rose from 6, 26,748 in 2009-10 to 9, 62,630 in 2013-14 – an incredible increase of 53.5%!
RTI at our side
The current political dispensation of the NDA seem to be very frightened of the RTI and are doing their best to have it watered down. Corruption in India has reached new levels today typified by the Vyapam Scam, the Lalit Modi scandal and the way with which the sections of the corporate and mining lobbies can just get away with anything. The Government’s desire to take away the teeth from this important legislation is very unfortunate.
Aruna Roy, an RTI pioneer in an article “RTI on my side” (Indian Express 12 October) co-authored with Nikhil Dey, writes, “RTI laga denge (we will file an RTI application)” has become one of the most popular refrains of the frustrated Indian facing the arbitrary exercise of power. In fact, it needs to be taken further. Much eventually depends on the alert and vocal people. The encouraging sign is that it seems like the argumentative Indian, who is now speaking truth to power, cannot and will not be gagged.”
The challenge for every citizen today is to mainstream the RTI and to use it effectively for the good of all.
Cedric Prakash SJ