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RTI- Uncovering the Plus and the Minus

RTI is doubtless a milestone in the deliberate route taken by the country for setting up foundation for democratic institutions and impart depth to public responsive functioning of the government and its various agencies.

Information is not just a word, it has a deep meaning and with the advent of the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005, this word is on the lips of everyone. In a democracy people are sovereign, they are the one who need to be governed and for whom policies are being made. But the era of democracy is not a fairy tale world where everything would be just and fair. Nevertheless, fairy tales do have witches which constrain the just world. Similarly in a democracy the prominent witch is “corruption”. It is to stop this that the RTI was introduced and enacted. In this paper I have tried to throw light on one of the most important right in India, that is, right to information and also I will sketch its importance as well as its limitations and flaws.

INTRODUCTION

RTI is doubtless a milestone in the deliberate route taken by the country for setting up foundation for democratic institutions and impart depth to public responsive functioning of the government and its various agencies. It is a significant tool to ensure transparency in most of the operations of the government.RTI means the freedom of people to have access to government information. It means openness and transparency in the functioning of government. It is antithetical to secrecy in public administration. According to Woodrow Wilson, “I for have the conviction that government ought to be all outside and not inside. I, for my part, believe that there ought to be no place where everything can be done that everyone does not know about. Everyone knows corruption thrives in secret places and avoid public places”. It is an initiative taken by the Department of Personal and Training (DOPT) to provide a gateway to citizens for quick search of information. RTI mandates timely response to citizen’s request for government information. Information disclosure in India was restricted by the official secrets act (1923) which the new RTI act now relaxes. It empowers every citizen to-

  • Ask any question from government or seek any information.
  • Take copies of any governmental documents.
  • Inspect any governmental documents.
  • Inspect any governmental works.
  • Take samples of material of any government work.

RTI is an important social accountability mechanism. It empowers the citizens by giving them legal rights to access government information.

HISTORY

RTI has emerged as a prominent concern in the field of public administration and it is regarded as ones of the most important social innovations of this century in the field of grievance redressal mechanism. It has been derived from the UDHR (universal declaration of human rights) in 1948. According to article 19 of the UDHR, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression without any interference and to seek information, receive and impart ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”. Sweden was the first country to provide this freedom to its citizen’s way back in 1766. However the other countries adopted it quite late (the last decade of late 20th century and early 21st century). Finland enacted the Freedom of Information legislation in 1951. Both Denmark and Norway have made the similar legislations in the year 1970. USA has granted right to information to its citizens by the freedom of information act in 1966. This act was amended in 1974 for two purposes-

  • To limit the exemptions (the documents which the administration may keep in secret).
  • To provide for penalties for withholding the formation or acting in an arbitrary manner.

France, Netherlands and Austria have made the similar legislation in the 1970’s. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have done it in 1982. Thailand and Ireland have made the law in 1977. Bulgaria enacted it in 2000. In South Africa, the right to information is guaranteed by the constitution itself. This right to 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 recommendations. Hence, in 1988 the act was amended to narrow the scope of official information falling within its ambit. Finally, the UK Freedom of Information Act came into force on January 1, 2005.

THE INDIAN SCENARIO

As mentioned earlier, the RTI is not explicitly provided for in the Indian constitution. However, article 19(1) (a) of the constitution, which confers right to freedom of speech and expression includes the RTI when read with article 19 of UDHR. The official secrets act, 1923 allowed the government to deny to the public access to many documents on grounds of ‘secrecy’. The colonial legacy of stringent control over information continued to dominate the official approach for almost 60 years even after India became independent.

The advent of the RTI on 15th June, 2005 at one stroke superseded most provisions of the official secrets act, 1923 and turned on its head the relationship between the common man and officials in authority. RTI is a part of fundamental rights under article 19(1) of the constitution. Article 19 (1) says that, every citizen has freedom of speech and expression. As early as in 1976, the Supreme Court said in the case of Raj Narain vs State of UP that people cannot speak or express themselves unless they know. Therefore, right to information is embedded in article 19 of the Indian constitution.

Now the question arises, if RTI is a fundamental right, then why do we need an Act to give us this right? This is because if we went to any government department and told the officer there, “RTI is our fundamental right, and that we are the master of this country. Therefore, please show me all your files”, heshe would not do that. Therefore we need a machinery or a process through which we can exercise this fundamental right. RTI Act provides that machinery. Right to information act does not give us any new right. It simply lays down the process on how to apply for information, where to apply, how much fees etc.

In 1977, the Janta party government promised an open government and declared that it would not misuse the intelligence services and governmental authority for personal and partisan ends. The second attempt in this direction was made in 1989 as a result of people’s frustration towards congress government. The government was not ready to disclose information and other deals. Then the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) alliance took the lead but ultimately it was the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government which enacted the RTI Act in 2005. In the meanwhile, some of the state governments successfully enacted RTI laws. Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Rajasthan(2000), Karnataka (2000), Delhi (2001), Maharashtra (2002), Assam (2002), Madhya Pradesh (2003), Jammu and Kashmir IN 2004. Out of these the Maharashtra and Delhi state level enactments are considered to have been most widely used.

In Rajasthan, the right to information movement was initiated by Aruna Roy in the early 1990’s. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) succeeded through struggle and agitation, in accessing and using information to put an end to local corruption and exploitation. In 2005, the parliament has enacted a new legislation- right to information act (2005). This new act replaces the old freedom of information act, 2002, which was un-notified and hence, not operational. The new legislation confers on all citizens the right of access to the information and correspondingly, makes the dissemination of such information an obligation on all public 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.

PROVISIONS OF RTI ACT-

  •  It provides for the appointment of an information officer in each department to provide information to the public on request.
  • It fixes a 30-day deadline for providing information; deadline is 48 hours if information concerns life or liberty of a person.
  • Information will be free for people below poverty line. For others, fee will be reasonable.
  •  The Act imposes obligation on public agencies to disclose the information suo-motu to reduce requests for information.
  • Government bodies have to publish details of staff payments and budgets.
  •  It provides for the establishment of a Central Information Commission and State Information 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.
  • The President will appoint a Chief Information Commissioner and governs of state will appoint state information commissioners. Their term will be five years.
  • 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.
  •  The Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioner will publish an annual report on the implementation of the Act. These reports will be tabled before Parliament and state legislature.
  • The Act overrides the Official secrets Act, 1923. The information commissions can allow access to the information if public interest outweighs harm to protected persons.
  •  It carries strict penalties for failing to provide information or affecting its flow. The erring officials will be subject to departmental proceedings.
  •  The information commission shall fine an official Rs. 250 per day (subject to a maximum of Rs. 25,000) if information is delayed without reasonable cause beyond the stipulated 30 days.
  •  The procedure of appeal in case the information is denied is like this – first appeal to superior of public information officer, second appeal to information commission, and third appeal to a high court.
  •  Its purview does not extend to intelligence and security organizations like Intelligence Bureau, RAW, BSF, CISF, and NSG and so on. However, information pertaining to allegations of corruption or violation of human rights by these organizations will not be excluded.

 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.

HOW TO USE RTI-

Step 1: Identifying the issue.

Step 2: Identifying the relevant department of the government. The law mandates a ‘Public Information Officer’ to transfer the application to relevant department in case the applicant refers the application to the wrong department, in no case can the application be returned to the applicant.

Step 3: On a plan sheet of paper, addressed to the ‘Public Information Officer’ of the relevant department write down your questions. This can be in a simple letter format with the subject: Application under Right to Information Act 2005 (there is no prescribed application form under the law for filling an RTI application).

Step 4: Payment of the fees – the application fees for central government departments is Rs.10. however different states have prescribed different fee. i) Cash – the applicant goes the relevant department in person and pays fees in cash. Please insist for receipt/acknowledgement. ii) Government Treasury – the applicant goes to the Treasury and pays under the RTI account head. The receipt should be attached to the application and sent by Registered Post Acknowledgement Due. iii) Demand Draft – the applicant sends a Demand Draft addressed to the ‘Public Information Officer, Name of the Department. The DD should be attached to the application and sent by Registered Post Acknowledgement Due. iv) State Bank of India – all the State Banks are allowed to accept RTI fees. Payment can be made under the RTI account head and the receipt should be attached to the application and sent by Registered Post Acknowledgement Due. Note – Payments also can be made through Court Fee Stamp, Postal Orders or through RTI centers at the nearest Post Office.

Step 5: The Public Information Officer should respond within 30 days of the receipt of the application failing which the applicant should make the 1st appeal to the Appellate Authority of the same department. The appeal should be addressed to the Appellate Authority (the postal address is usually the same as the PIO).

Step 6: The Appellate Authority gets another 30 days to respond failing which the applicant can make the 2nd appeal to the State Information Commission (for the state government departments) or Central Information Commission (for central government departments).

A person seeking information may submit a request in writing or through electronic form available on the website, to the PIO of the concerned office. the particulars of the information required must be specified in the application, the reply must be given within 30 days of the receipt of the application or the request be rejected for reasons as specified under the act. However, if life and liberty of any person is involved, the PIO (public information officer) is requested to reply within 48 days (M. 2016).

RTI IN PRACTICE AT THE GRASS ROOT LEVEL-

RTI movement at the grass root was initiated by a people’s organization called MKSS. However, the social activist like Anna Hazare, Nirmala Deshpandey and Pankaj Raj contributed in their even way and tried to sensitize the rural masses towards their rights and privileges. MKSS is a registered society set up in 1990 to fight corruption related to departmentally implemented public works programme.

The use and importance of RTI at the grass root level is visible in MGNREGA (national rural employment guaranteed act) 2005. According to NREGA guidelines all the levels of government should maintain proper records containing information in input, process, outputs and outcome in MGNREGA. In order to insure that this information is proactively disclosed and made available to citizens the MGNREGA guidelines stipulated that all information will be displayed to the public through display boards and paintings on the walls of the panchayat offices. Apart from this there is a provision that all MGNREGA accounts and their summaries at the Gram Panchayat level should be made publically available for scrutiny.

The above analysis clearly reveals that RTI at the grass root level is being implemented through social audits of MGNREGA. The functioning reveals the success of social audit and in turn the success of RTI. Yet there are examples which suggest that the implementation of MGNREGA has not been done in a genuinely democratic and decentralized manner. There are examples where correct information has not been provided when sought for. In Manipur information was sought relating to the beneficiaries of Indira Awas Yojna, repairing the culvert and holding of a panchayat meeting in respect of Bijoy Govinda Gram Panchayat in Imphal’s west district.

According to N.Memi the information provided by the rural development and panchayati raj department was tempered, misleading and incorrect. The CAG had noted fraud and irregularities in the implementation MGNREGA scheme in Karnataka. A sample survey conducted by Delhi based Centre for Environment and Food Security in Madhya Pradesh points to a Rs. 2100crore scam in the implementation scheme. According to the survey only 25% of the scheme funds have been actually spent on the poor and remaining 25% has been misused by creating fake muster rolls and job cards.

In Delhi a voluntary organization called Parivartan has been quite successful in facilitating the use RTI in addressing their grievances, getting their pending works done by the government departments and also inspecting the government work. It is helping the poor people in getting their Ration Cards or receiving their Ration quota on Antodya card under PDS (public distribution system) by exercising the RTI. Finally the media is playing an effective role in furthering the flow, authenticity and quality of information. The media has to become active and responsive participant in increasing awareness among the citizens, leading a voice to the voiceless and generating debate on the use and misuse of RTI, exposing the corrupt practices of the government without any fear or favor.

According to Veerappa Moily, chairman of the 2nd Administrative Reform Commission, “RTI has been seen as the key to strengthening participatory democracy and ushering in peoples centered governance, access to information can empower the poor and the weaker sections of the society to demand and get information about public policies and actions thereby leading to their welfare”. Therefore, RTI has also been said to be the life blood of democracy.

SCAMS EXPOSED BY RTI-

Since the establishment of RTI on 12th October 2005, it has been used to fight corruption and has exposed deep-rooted graft in India. For example, the RTI applications filed by activists Yogacharya Anandji and Simpreet Singh in 2008 exposed the infamous adarsh housing society scam, which eventually led to the resignation of the then Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan. The application revealed that the flats in adarsh housing society, a 31-storey building, which was originally meant to provide residence for war widows and veterans, were used to house politicians, bureaucrats and their relatives.

The RTI act was also used to expose corruption after the commonwealth games scam, in which the corrupt deals by politician suresh kalmadi embarrassed the nation. The report said that an RTI application filed non-profit housing and land rights network showed that the then Delhi government had diverted Rs. 744 crore from social welfare projects for dalits to the commonwealth games from 2005-06 to 2010-11.

In 2007, the RTI request filed by krishak mukti sangram, an NGO, revealed irregularities in the distribution of food meant for people living below the poverty line by the PDS in Assam, according to a report in The Wall Street journal. In 2008 an RTI application by a Punjab based NGO revealed that heads of the local branches of the Indian Red Cross Society had used money intended for the victims of the kargil war and natural disasters to buy cars, air-conditioners and pay for hotel bills. An application filed by social activist Anil Galgali showed that as many as 118 complaints of sexual harassment were filed at the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) between 2013 to 2016.An RTI query filed by CRY (child rights and you) revealed in 2016 that 22 children go missing in the national capital everyday with most of them being boys aged up to 12 years (Right to information: what 11 years of the RTI Act of 2005 have done for india 2016).

CRITICALLY ANALYSING THE RTI ACT-

Taking the above cases into consideration, it is pretty clear that RTI has worked as it is expected to. But still there are lacunas which act as a hindrance for the full realization of the goal of transparency and accountability. Here I turn to the central theme of this paper, which is, critically examining RTI in practice. Needless to say, the importance of the RTI Act can never be overstated. However, there are some problems with the RTI act, the most important one being that the huge number of RTI queries filed makes it difficult for public authorities to respond to them in a timely manner. A 2014 study conducted by the commonwealth human rights initiatives (CHRI) revealed that over 1.75 crore RTI applications have been filed from 2005to July 2014. According to this report in The New Indian Express, there has also been a tenfold increase in the number of RTI applications to the PMO (prime minister’s office) between 2006-07 and 2014-15, said the CHRI study. The number of RTI applications per day to the PMO increased from 3 in 2006-07 to 35 in 2014-15 (Right to information: what 11 years of the RTI Act of 2005 have done for india 2016).

Another problem is that a lot of the RTI queries filled are frivolous. For example, after the PMO website released a list of RTI queries about PM Modi, it was revealed that one of the RTI queries was the following: “what is the speed of internet of Wi-Fi in the PMO?” Another was: “has the principal secretary to PM, Shri Nripendra Misra, ever taken his subordinates, in the PMO, on a picnic?” (Right to information: what 11 years of the RTI Act of 2005 have done for india 2016) Here I suggest that the RTI act is one of the most crucial tools that we have as citizens. We should not misuse this freedom for petty jokes.

Another problem is associated with the section 2(h) of the act, which explains that, what comes under the purview of the term “public authority” but it does not give a comprehensive idea and creates ambiguities which pose problems for the information commission to decide the nature of an authority. Moreover, the phrase “substantially financed” also does not give a clear picture that what constitutes the word “substantial” which cause sheer confusion.

Another discrepancy in this act is under section 11 that whether the third party’s denial is the final verdict because when it comes to disclosure of information pertaining to the third party, its consent is required to be taken and in most of the cases they refuse to disclose the information stating the reason of it being an encroachment on their privacy and the PIO abide by it blindly without weighing the ramifications on the general public. Instead the PIO is supposed to determine whether the information is exempt under the provisions of the act and only if it deems to be an exemption stated under section 8 of the act can the third party’s denial be considered valid while in some cases, right to privacy virtually fades out in front of the ‘Right to Information’ and ‘larger public interest’.

There are also certain practical problems regarding the RTI Act, implementation of the RTI act is a very costly affair because it needs huge infrastructures. The data and documents have to be properly maintained, it has to be computerized, which requires abundant of trained workforce. The ground reality of storing documents and information in government department is well below than the satisfactory level because documents are damaged, destroyed, misplaced or some time not available. The persons who stores the documents are neither skilled nor having the knowledge of computer technology. Successful implementation of RTI depends upon availability of the infrastructure of computer network and trained skill workers which requires huge budgetary support by the governments.

The public authorities generally do not displayed information about RTI on their departmental or on the notice boards of concerned departments such as name plates of PIO and assistant PIOs in their offices. The act has mentioned to disseminate the information prescribed under section 4(1) through various means of communication. However this information is not seen even on the notice board of public authority in Manipur. The PIO’s do not have any training to deal with RTI applications. This creates delay in the process of the delivery of the answer of the application. It is mandatory for the commission to pay penalty under the section 20 if the information is not provided within 30 days. In this context commission absolutely have no discretion in this regard. Because of such lack of stringent enforcement in the act government officials do not have much fear. The commission is supposed to prepare a report on the implementation of RTI act at the end of every year. No report is yet available, though commission came into being on 12th October, 2005.

In a study conducted by the Department of Personal and Training (DOPT), it highlighted various issues and concerns faced during the implementation of RTI-

1. Regarding implementation, there has been lack of initiative from the government’s side. The efforts made by appropriate governments and public authorities have been restricted to publishing of rules and FAQ’s on websites. These efforts have not been helpful in generating mass awareness of the RTI Act.

2. The process of RTI application submission has not been designed keeping in view the needs and convenience of the citizens.

3. During the survey it was noted that there is no centralized data base of RTI applicants. Neither the state governments nor the state information commission is in a position to confirm the number of public authorities within a department and therefore the details on the number of applications filed.

4. The pendency at the information commission is a huge challenge. High pendencyof appeals are due to non optimal processes for disposing off appeals and complaints. In Maharashtra SIC, there is a “wait period” of more than 12 months, thus discouraging citizens from filing appeals.

5. The benefits of setting up regional offices far outweigh the initial capital costs involved in setting them up.

CONCLUSION-

Despite the above lacunas, the act is vital for the functioning of democracy. It ensures that the people we put in power remain answerable to us and by no means can they use public funds arbitrarily. Simpreet Singh RTI activist said, “It just takes Rs.10 to right a wrong. The biggest achievement of RTI is that it tells the most powerful people that they are not beyond the reach of a common man” (lawRato n.d.). RTI is a tool that checks corruption and holds the various bodies, agencies and departments of the government accountable to the public. The RTI act reflects the Riggsian model to some extent, since this act talks about transparency and accountability, which are the features of development administration and Riggs has explicitly talked about development administration in this theory.

Former Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh during the national convention on right to information of 2006 in New Delhi said, “RTI is an important milestone in our quest for building an enlightened and at the same time prosperous society”. On the other hand the frequent attacks on the RTI activists indicate its sheer impact on the Indian political spectrum. The RTI ACT is a useful legislation apart from the loopholes which if removed can further improve the act. Also, the public needs to become more vigilant and responsible and use the right in order to make oneself aware about the allocation of public funds, political parties, election candidates, private institutions etc. if people become well informed then they will be able to make better choices when it comes to electing government representatives and the possibility of being fooled by those in power might reduce.

Bibliography

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Goudappanavar, S.G. “subhash goudappanavar.” subhashgoudappanavar.blogspot.com. march 18, 2014. (accessed october monday, 2017).

jha, shakha. “RTI ACT, 2005: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS.” ALEXIS FOUNDATION .

khan, yasin. “A critique of right of information act.” Journal of Development, october 2012.

lawRato. “The Right to Information Act is a powerful tool. here’s how you can use it to your benefit.” The Better India.

M., Gopi. “Right to Information Act in India (An Overview).” Journal of political sciences and public affairs, 2016.

“Right to information: what 11 years of the RTI Act of 2005 have done for india.” FIRSTPOST, october 2016.

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www.righttoinformation.org.

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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