The RTI series seeks to help citizens understand their Right to Information. It will explain its significance in a democracy, the duties of public authorities, and provide information on filing an RTI. In the first installment, the author explains the development of transparency laws and their use. It is illustrated with success stories of the law that helped in improving the democratic field of transparency and accountability.
INDIA’s transparency law i.e. Right to Information (RTI), enacted on 12 October 2005, is one of the most powerful legislations to have come in force. Its recognition has a long history, but it was only in the 1990s that the struggle demanding a legislation really took off. In Rajasthan, some of the labourers working on daily wage basis were deprived of their minimum wages. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a non-political organization came forward to help them. Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Shankar Singh, Shekhar Singh from MKSS started conducting jan-sunwais (public hearings) for spreading awareness at various places in Rajasthan.
The movement soon gathered strength with social activists like Anna Hazare with Arvind Kejriwal, Shailesh Gandhi, Prakash Kardaley and others demanding a law for transparency and accountability in India. Tamil Nadu became the first state to commence RTI in 1997 followed by Goa (1997), Madhya Pradesh (1998), Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka in 2000 (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, 2018).
Why do we need a Right to Information?
We live in a democracy where people elect their own government expecting them to function for the welfare of the state. Freedom of information encourages transparency, accountability and good governance. Propagation of information also raises public participation in decision-making policies of the government. No democracy can function well without freedom of information and hence access to information is a basic and fundamental right.
Information belongs to the people for India. As a republic country, the government acts only as a representative of the people. Thus there exists RTI but it is expected that there should not arise the need to exercise RTI because the government should be proactive in providing access to information at avail. A government that on its own encourages the proliferation of information on garners trust amongst its people.
What is ‘Right to Information’?
So as per Section 2(j) “right to information” means the right to access information held by or under the control of any public authority. This includes the right to inspection of documents and records. One can take notes, extracts, or certified copies of documents or records, and/or take certified samples of material. One can obtain this information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device.
What constitutes ‘information’?
Section 2(f) of RTI Act defines “information” as any material in physical or electronic form. This includes records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advice, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form. It extends to information relating to any private body, which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.
Here “record” is defined under Section 2(i) and includes (a) any document, manuscript and file or (b) microfilm, microfiche and facsimile copy of a document. It extends to any reproduction of image or images embodied in such microfilm and includes any other material produced by a computer or any other device.
Who is “public authority”?
A public authority is any state authority or body or institution. Under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act it is defined as any body established or constituted under the Constitution, by the Parliament or State Legislature or through a notification that is issued by the appropriate Government. Ascertaining appropriate government includes looking at whether the body is owned, controlled or substantially financed by Government, and includes NGOs that directly or indirectly receive funds by Government.
Apart from public authority, one may also access information of any private entity, subject to the condition that the public authority may be legally entitled to access such information sought by you under any existing law.
How is RTI useful for us?
RTI helps us gather data on government measures and acts. It is crucial to uncovering spending of public money and has helped unearth scams like Adarsh and 2010 Commonwealth Games. Thus its powerful potential could also help resolve your civic issues without paying a bribe to the government employees and address daily corruption. (Sharma, 2015). There are several instances where the applicants were earlier harassed or made to run from pillar to post for obtaining a passport, ration card or there was a delay in conducting any action based on a civil complaint. The applicants started exercising their right to information and gradually with the improvisation in governmental policies, the occurrence of such problems has decreased.
For about two years, Suvarana Bhagyawant made several visits to the Ambegaon panchayat office to get her grandfather’s death certificate. Every time, the official there would instruct her either to come later or to pay a bribe of Rs 500 to get the work done. Suvarana needed this certificate so that her grandmother could apply for the widow pension scheme. Finally, Suvarana filed a query under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and she got the certificate within eight days of her filing RTI application. In describing RTI applications, Suvarna said “This piece of paper is like a weapon for the powerless to fight against the corrupt establishment” (RTI Success Stories, 2018).
Delhi High Court in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) vs. Aditya Bandopadhyay & Ors ruled that answer sheets could be provided to the examinees under RTI Act and that too at no additional costs, other than the fee applicable as per the RTI rules. (Moneylife, 2016). Earlier, CBSE would charge an exorbitant fee for providing answer sheet copies to the examinee. This would hinder the basic right of the candidate to view the evaluation done on his copy.
Guntupalli Anjaneyulu, aged 80 years and a resident of Andhra Pradesh, was successful in securing his pension after Central Information Commission (CIC) heard his plea in the second appeal. The Central Information Commissioner Prof. (Dr.) Sridhar Acharyulu compelled the Ministry of Culture to release his pension immediately. He eventually issued a show cause notice to the ministry asking its PIO, the reason for his failure to perform his duty of responding to the RTI application within the stipulated time.
There are several similar instances where a simple RTI application has evoked success which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible without bribing or using some other unfair means.
Despite success stories, it is not wrong to say that RTI Act is in a state of dismay. According to a study done by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES), the number of appeals and complaints pending as on December 31, 2016, in the 23 information commissions were 1,81,852. This pendency arose to 1,99,186 at the end of October 2017 (Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies, 2018). In almost all cases, either posts of Chief Information Commissioners are vacant or the Information Commissions are functioning at a reduced capacity. It is also observed that Section 4 of RTI Act, which is suo motu disclosure of information by public authorities, is itself violated by information commissions. Eventually either the information is not available in the public domain or, if it is, then such information is obsolete.
No country can progress without having transparency and accountability in its governance. Hence RTI isn’t just a law but a tool for the functioning of better democracy. It is a citizen’s fundamental right derived from Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which states that all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression. Information is just an expression like any other and thus it should be pervaded free into society.
Right to Information is crucial in demanding accountability through transparency from public authorities. In the next part, we shall examine who are public authorities and their obligations in greater details.
(Shrikrishna Kachave is an advocate practicing in trial court and tribunals of Pune)
The views expressed by the author are his personal. He may be reached @ShrikrishnaSays
Business Standard. (2018, November 17). BJP’s Vision Document for MP promises safety for women, jobs, transparency in governance, and better farmer income. Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Economic Times. (2018, August 20). CIC divided over bringing political parties under RTI. India.
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. (2018, December 11). Retrieved from Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan: http://mkssindia.org/about/
Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies. (2018, March). Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India. Retrieved from http://snsindia.org/rti-assessments/: http://snsindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Report-Card-on-Performance-of-Information-Commissions-2018-Key-findings-FINAL.pdf
The Hans India. (2018, November 27). Congress releases Manifesto: Promises transparent, accountable government. Telangana, India.