TODAY -

Embedding Right to Information : A Long Road Ahead

N. Birbal Singh *

Villagers preventing RTI activists from inspection tour at Wakhong Primary School as police intervene to control the situation in August 27 2011
Villagers preventing RTI activists from inspection tour at Wakhong Primary School as police intervene to control the situation in August 27 2011
Pix - Hueiyen Lanpao



Hailed by intellectuals as a watershed moment in the constitutional history of India and looked upon as a savior to the common man who are deprived of the privilege entitled to them by the constitution of a democratic nation, the RTI Act still remains to prove itself. Despite the Act being in force for 6 years, the greater section of the populace still remains largely ignorant and public authorities refuse to fall in line.

Transparency being a major component of a functioning democracy, the RTI act, 2005, is intended to complement the constitution of the largest democracy of the world. The act supposedly makes navigating through the government's machinery to obtain information simple. And, equipping oneself with the right information enables to buttress one's rightful claim.

However various factors, mainly to do with the Indian mindset, are proving to be impediments and prompt us to re-question the potency of the act in breaching the prevailing veil of secrecy surrounding governance in India. Withheld compliance to directives of the act on part of the public authority, ignorance of the masses, threat and execution of threat against activists, etc. have created a bulwark against proper implementation of the RTI act.

In many departments of the government, PIOs (Public officers exclusively mandated to tend to RTI queries) are yet to be appointed. Inordinate delays in replying, refusal on the pretext of non-availability of records and other manipulative interpretation of clauses of the act by public authorities discourages people from pursuing their case. While the law has empowered citizens to ask questions, he is, ironically, not guaranteed the answer.

Although not entirely heartening, but may, nonetheless, positively impact the psyche of the public, RTI enjoyed considerable newsprint space in national and regional media in recent times. Stories of Jumbo sized scams were brought out to the public domain through the use of RTI act. The exposure of Adarsh Housing scam in Maharastra once again reiterated the omnipresence of the politics-business nexus.

Earlier this month, another irregularity about recruitment practice was exposed when one Sanatombi Devi filed RTI applications sensing bad practices with the recruitment of Sub-Inspectors in the Manipur Police. Corruption is widespread in Manipur and the state hold the dubious of being one of the most corrupted states in India. While there is no dearth of such evidence to reinforce the claim, the RTI act makes it only easier to unearth scams and more scams. On the other hand, events of RTI activists being attacked for being concerned about the welfare of his fellow citizens have become part of our daily dosage of news consumption. News of RTI activist being assaulted, ostracized and threatened are not rare. To quote an example, a resident of Wakhong in Imphal East, Manipur was ostracized for raising questions over the construction of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan school building.

Appalling as it is, on 26th February, 2011 in Kutch, Gujarat, a farmer killed himself in the compound of a government office by putting himself on fire. Being denied information under RTI, he saw the last straw of hope slipping away from his hand. He may have chosen to undertake the ethereal journey for want of earthly sustenance, but it is will also be too pitiless of us to ignore the mental torture he must have endured. It seems he had expected too much from the landmark Act or maybe he was only expecting that is expected of it. The event managed to attract the attention of rights' activists but have failed to prove itself as a fulcrum to initiate a vigorous campaign to bring non-performing authorities to task.

Despite the numerous physical attacks being committed against activists, it is encouraging as well as veritable to say that the RTI cloud too has a silver lining. Sensing increasing scrutiny by concerned citizens over the affairs of the government which is perpetually shrouded in secrecy, the government proposed legislations to clip the wings of the RTI act. Keen eyed as they are, activists immediately understood the repercussions portended.

Relentlessly building pressure over the government against the amendment that would significantly forestall the purpose of the act in spirit and otherwise, the NAC convinced the government to yield to reason and purpose. The propose amendment intended to impose a word limit on RTI application might have acted as a hindrance to the not so educated but concerned activists. Another proposed amendment was the ceasing of the query with the death of the applicant. As RTI empowers the common man to demand transparency and justice from power mongering authorities, many activists had to face life threatening physical assault with alarming frequency. Ceasing the query with the death of the applicant would certainly invite life attempts against activists' multi-fold.

This is a major achievement on part of the civil society and other like minded people in their endeavor to bring about transparency. Theoretically, RTI is the ultimate way towards transparent governance. At the constitutional level, RTI act is a significant achievement and India is looked upon as a role model in the sub-continent. However, implementation of RTI has yielded mixed results. While a handful of citizens have actually been benefited by the RTI, some seeking to avail their constitutional rights through the Act had to pay a heavy price their life. Some had to face physical assault, some threatened and more others ostracized.

On the legislation level, the Right to Information Act seems to be holding ground, unwilling to lose its spirit by diluting itself. But, the actual implementation at the ground level is turning out to be tough. Awareness among the common populace remains low and authorities are still unwilling to embrace the idea that they are accountable to the masses. The idea of RTI is still alien and it will be of optimal practical value once it flourishes in our minds. Embedding an idea in our psyche that has long evaded even our wildest imagination will of-course require reminders persistently from concerned citizens experts or non-experts.


* N. Birbal Singh wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer is based in Delhi and works in the development sector and can be contacted at birbalsinghn(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on September 12, 2012.



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