BY NEHA MITTAL, INSTITUTE OF LAW, KURUKSHETRA UNIVERSITY
“Editor’s Note: Right to Information Act (RTI) has brought a revolution in India. In the much corrupted and typical bureaucratic regime in India it has empowered the common man to fight for its rights. Therefore Right to Information act (RTI) has been often tagged as a democratic reform. With the slogan of hamara paisa, hamara hisaab’ and ‘hum janenge, hum jiyenge’ its powerful reach has even uncovered the corrupt acts of ministers like A Raja, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Kapil Sibbal etc. Now even the six national political parties are included under the head of public authority and therefore covered by RTI. By enacting RTI, we have moved from an opaque system of governance to an era of transparency and citizen empowerment.”
Eight years may seem to be a short stretch to appraise a landmark law such as the Right to Information Act, especially in a diverse country like ours but this transparency law has managed to leave its imprint in this short period by becoming a new weapon in the hands of the people. Prior to 2005, questions were unanswered and curiosities were suppressed. People never had the chance to know how the tax paid by them was being used by the government, how a minister was able to acquire property four times his annual income, how was the college principal using the funds meant for the students, what was the background of candidates standing in elections etc. But all this changed on 12 October, 2005 with the passing of the landmark Right to Information Act, 2005. This Act paved the way for a more accountable, transparent and responsible government which is no longer allowed to work under the veil of secrecy. This event marked the dawn of a new era of empowerment of the masses, an era of performance and efficiency, an era which will truly fulfill the hopes of the founding fathers of the nation. It is used as a tool to know more about the government; a tool to unearth the scams and fight corruption; and to make the public institutions more accountable. It brought into effect the slogans of ‘hamara paisa, hamara hisaab’ and ‘hum janenge, hum jiyenge’.
It is rightly said that a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Prior to RTI, people had the right to get information under article 19(1) (a), 311(2) and 22(1) of the Constitution of India but it was seldom enforced. This right was also recognized by the Supreme Court of India two decades ago in State of UP v/s Raj Narain AIR 1975 SC 865 by Justice K K Mathew in the following words-
“In a government….where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people….have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way….. The responsibility of officials to explain or to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression and corruption.”
But it took relentless efforts of activists and campaigning at national and regional level to give a concrete shape to it. The enactment of RTI in 2005 sent a wave of enthusiasm and legal activeness among the masses. People now don’t have to move from pillar to post to get any information rather the burden to provide information within specified time is on the Public Information Officer appointed under the Act. The government officials are no longer in the dominating position. The bargaining power of the people vis-à-vis the public officials has increased manifold.
From its very inception, it has acted like a sword in the hands of the powerless men. It provided them not only with the mere hope but rather with a framework to fight corruption and to get the information which actually belonged to them. Had RTI not been there, people would have never known that a sum of 642 crore had been incurred on PM Manmoham Singh’s air travels abroad in the last nine years; that Hockey is not the national game of India; that Gandhiji is officially not the Father of the Nation; that 26 January, 15 August and 2 October are not national holidays and the various irregularities in the Commonwealth Games would not have come forth. This list seems to be endless.
The RTI confers a legal right to the citizens to seek information from any ‘public authority’. The public authority cannot ask for the locus standi of person seeking the information. It has truly proved to be a gem of legislation. The way it has transformed the system is incredible. It has been instrumental in uncovering not only district level government officials but even the ministers have not been left untouched by it. A common man now has access even to the files of Prime Minister. The Act has unveiled the corrupt and illegal acts of ministers like A. Raja, Kanimozhi for their alleged involvement in 2G scam; Kapil Sibal for favoring Ambani-owned Reliance Infocomm by lowering the fine from 650 crore to just 5 crore; Sushilkumar Shinde and Vilasrao Deshmukh for their alleged role in Adarsh housing scam. RTI queries have been the starting point of exposure in a score of recent cases of corruption. They all would have been shut out of the sight in the absence of RTI. This Act makes civil servant think twice before being dishonest.
With the passage of RTI, the government has become more accountable, transparent and responsible towards its citizens. The ministers no longer take decisions in a fanciful manner rather are guided by logical reasoning as they know they can be questioned about any of their decision. Every public authority is required to provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to the affected persons under section 4(1) (d) of the Act. The people have access to all the files, notings, documents, circulars etc. of the government departments subject to certain reasonable restrictions.
RTI has made people more aware and informed about their rights. It has bestowed upon India an informed citizenry. The ordinary folk can call for and obtain records of decisions that critically impact their lives. It has been successfully able to answer many questions which trouble a common man- Why there are no medicines in health posts? Why are people dying of starvation? Why are government services ineffective? Why do roads start peeling off the day after they are repaired? Why are our water taps often dry? The people now get to know the expenditure incurred when any minister visits their town.
Not only this, but people also demand information about the wealth and assets of the ministers and judges of High Courts and Supreme Court. Even the students seek information about their answer sheets or delay in results. The act has generated an overwhelming response in different sections of the society, especially the middle class. People have used the RTI tool to get their ration cards, passports, pension funds, birth certificate, income tax refunds etc. The number of applications received by Central Information Commission has increased from 1304 in 2008-09 to 3361 in 2010-11. This empowered citizenry is a step forward towards building a developed nation.
RTI has been a stepping stone not only in the better implementation of policies but also in designing the policy by securing public involvement so that people are actually able to reap the benefits conferred upon them by these policies. An era of darkness in policy planning is over. Pension scheme, fair price distribution scheme, reservation policy, NREGA etc. are some examples of such policies. This Act has also strengthened the citizen-government partnership. The people are not only the beneficiaries of the developmental activities of the government but are also the agents of change.
The government has also shifted to citizen-centric approach of development. Without access to the relevant information, a common man cannot think rationally and thus, cannot participate in a meaningful debate on political or economic issues which are of great importance to him to realize his own socio-economic aspirations. It is only after the introduction of RTI Act that we have become a ‘real democracy’. The government has truly become ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’. True democracy is impossible until we recognize the majesty of the individual citizen.
The real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of the authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all to resist the authority when abused. Today it is not the people’s representatives who raise important questions but common people, RTI activists and social organizations are raising these questions. And what is even better is that not only have they received satisfactory answers but proper action has also been taken on the issues raised by them.
A major step was taken on 3rd June, 2013 when the Central Information Commission decided that all the six national political parties would be covered under the term ‘public authority’ thus, ensuring more transparency in their functioning.
It can rightly be said that RTI has shown its immense utility in this span of eight years. The way people have welcomed it shows that this is what our country was waiting for. By enacting RTI, we have moved from an opaque system of governance to an era of transparency and citizen empowerment. Surely, the Act has made applaudable achievements but there is need for some more. The best way is to change the mindset of the legislators who had become used to secrecy for decades. Hopefully, it would prove to be the real right to information and its provisions would not be frustrated by flux of time.
Formatted on 1st March 2019.