Can the Indian democracy claim this century for its own? That seems to me a tall order, even if after factoring in all the positives that have accrued to both the economy, and consequently, society. In part because there’s one vital facet of this democracy that has not yet been truly freed of its chronic mindset of protectionism. This facet is that of governance, which is increasingly being acknowledged as the key to broadbased development. And for governance to be truly democratic, and facilitate equal opportunity for all, an informed citizenry is a must.
It is one and a half years since the Central Right to Information (RTI) Act was passed. There were huge expectations that this law would bring in much-needed transformation in governance. And rightly so. The experience with the RTI Acts in many states earlier had been quite encouraging.
However, the experiences with the central RTI Act have been mixed. A trend can be seen —when you file an RTI application, either you get information in the very first instance; if you do not and if you file an appeal, there is very little chance that you will get information. The appellate process, notably the information commissioners, barring a few exceptions, is perceived to be functioning against citizens rather than protecting their interests.
There is one area where the RTI Act has so far been used with great precision—if any legitimate work was pending in any government department and government officials were not doing it, either because they expected a bribe or simple bureaucratic lethargy. The RTI Act has proved very effective in such situations. Whether it is a pending passport or an income tax refund or an old age pension or a caste certificate or any other work—earlier people used to feel completely helpless in their day-to-day dealings with government. RTI has given ordinary people the power to be able to challenge bribery. There are thousands of people across the country who used RTI and said no to bribes.
How does it work? When you ask questions such as—give me the names of the officials who were responsible for doing my work and who have not done it, why has my work not been done so far, when will my work be done now—it becomes difficult for government departments to reply to your queries. Because the responsibility gets fixed. In most cases, before they provide information, they end up doing your job.
But, recently, one such case went up to the Central Information Commission (CIC). A Brigadier had provided transport services to a government department, but the government did not pay his bills. He asked for the names of the officers responsible for keeping his payments pending. His request was rejected by A.N. Tiwari, central information commissioner, saying that disclosing the names of the officers would endanger the lives of these officers. The Brigadier had also asked—why were his bills kept pending for so long and by when would they be paid. Tiwari rejected this request also saying these were queries and this was not permitted under the RTI Act. In the last so many years, people all over the country had been putting these questions and getting relief. With one stroke, Tiwari struck a major blow to the RTI movement. Obviously, Tiwari’s order is illegal and needs to be challenged.
Delhi Police have found a novel way of dealing with RTI. Nahar Singh was attacked by some people in his locality. He made a complaint to the police in 2003, asking for an FIR to be lodged. The Police did not do this. Once the RTI Act came into place, Nahar Singh asked, why the FIR had not been registered. Interestingly, a month after Nahar Singh filed his RTI application, the police officially destroyed the records related to his complaint and replied that the information could not be provided because the records pertaining to his complaint had been officially destroyed. When Nahar Singh approached the CIC, the Police’s action was treated as legitimate and Nahar Singh’s case was dismissed.
This is not an isolated case. Some more cases have come to light where Police had “officially” destroyed records after receiving an RTI request and this was treated as a legitimate excuse by the CIC for not providing information. Under section 20 of the RTI Act, if any official destroys records to prevent disclosure of information, he is liable to be penalized up to a maximum of Rs25,000. Rather than imposing a penalty, the CIC opted to legitimize the misdeeds of officials.
Information commissions were set up to listen to complaints and appeals from citizens who were denied information. They have a duty to ensure that the citizen receives information as permissible under the RTI Act. They also have a statutory duty to penalize officials who violate the provisions of the RTI Act. Commissioners have persistently refused to impose penalties. When questioned by The Indian Express last November as to why there were so few penalties, Wajahat Habibullah, chief information commissioner, said he believed in the philosophy of ahimsa.
So far, out of more than 4,000 complaints disposed of so far, penalties have been imposed in just 27 cases. So, a very clear message has gone to the bureaucracy all over the country—you don’t need to give information under RTI because the CIC is there to protect you. Recently, one person came from Korba in Chhattisgarh. He works for South Eastern Coalfields Ltd. He said—“When the RTI Act came in 2005, for a few months every one in our company was scared of RTI and we were getting information. Unfortunately, some cases reached the CIC in appeal. The complainants and the cases were so badly treated by the CIC that now the officials have openly started denying information saying—CIC mein jaoge. Jao, wahin milenge.” Similar stories have been narrated by many people from across the country, all suggesting that the bureaucracy has simply started ignoring RTI applications.
The RTI Act is the result of a long struggle waged by the people of this country. Can we allow RTI to be killed like this? It is time we demanded that the central information commissioners either protect the interests of the people or quit. I find there’s urgent need to remind one and all that Indian democracy can work for its people, provided it is made thus accountable.
Arvind Kejriwal is founder and head of Parivartan, a citizen’s movement for improving governance. He was a major force behind the country’s RTI Act.