New Delhi: What good is a celebrated citizen’s right if the majority of citizens are unaware it exists?
That question is being asked as two years after the much-talked-about Right to Information (RTI) Act was launched, the publicity arm of the government appears to have shied away from talking about the spread of the message.
“We have never released any kind of commercial due to the limitation imposed on us in the Act,” concedes Wajahat Habibullah, the chief information commissioner. “We have now approached the government to do something to create awareness.”
The way the Act has been structured, the power to initiate publicity campaigns was given to the department of personnel and training (DoPT), which is part of the home ministry.
So far, DoPT has not specified any separate budget for publicizing the RTI Act in the commission’s budget, say Central Information Commission officials. Senior officials of DoPT couldn’t be reached for comment. But a department staffer who handles the RTI section, who did not wish to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed that there had been no spending for advertising and that a separate budget for publicity for the Act was yet to be set up.
With the publicity campaign stillborn, activists believe that awareness of the Act is not spreading, especially in the rural areas. They see the reluctance on the part of the government as a conscious effort by the political establishment to try and restrict the use of this right.
“The government does not want the masses to use this Act. Therefore, the government is not keen on advertising the benefits of RTI,” insists Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan, one of the leaders of the RTI movement in India. The Magsaysay award winner also claimed that sections within the government were trying to ensure that RTI does not become popular.
The RTI Act 2005 is seen by many as one of the seminal laws passed by Parliament in the country’s 60 years as an independent nation, as it empowered every Indian citizen to be able to demand information on the working of the government.
So far, the commission has handled more than 8,500 RTI applications and of these, around 3,500 have been disposed of. The monthly disposal rate, which was around 200 in the beginning, has now jumped to more than 600.
However, experts note that in the two years since the Act came to life, the bulk of the applicants have been either disgruntled government servants—seeking to find out why they were bypassed in departmental promotions—or other urban applicants.
Many applicants have also tried to use the Act to try and find out competitive business information, often at the behest of companies, creating a cottage industry of applicants willing to file petitions on government tenders and bids.
Earlier this week, information commissioner M. Ansari, after hearing a case filed by a Union government officer, noted that “a number of government employees are seeking information for promotion of their personal interest. This is done on pretext of serving the public cause, without realizing the extent of distortions that it causes in use of public resources by putting up frivolous applications by them for self-interest”.
In contrast to the low-key approach to the RTI Act, the government has gone out of its way to spread the message of its flagship social scheme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, which promises 100 days of work for the rural poor.
The rural development ministry has instructed all district administrations running the project that it wanted the programme to be widely publicized.
It has also specified the use of publicity material prepared in local languages, TV and radio commercials, and distribution of pamphlets to all district administrations carrying out work pertaining to the programme.