Danubhai G. Vasava, a poor tribal from Sangroad in Umarpada block of Gujarat’s Surat district, attended a Right to Information (RTI) awareness camp organized by Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP, Gujarat Initiative for RTI). Enthused, Vasava filed an RTI application enquiring about the status of 10 wells that were long overdue. In response he received rebukes and threats. When he did not relent, officials came enquiring and wanted to know where they should develop the well in his home. Vasava shrugged off the offer and insisted that the wells be developed as planned. Eventually, all 10 wells were sunk as planned. In a happy ending to this story, Vasava now assists others of his kind to file RTI applications!
The above is just one of many instances of what the RTI Act has achieved since it was passed by Parliament on 15 June 2005, and came into effect nearly four months later on 12 October. The first five years in the life of most laws is usually a tumultuous period when it moves towards maturity through its application and implementation, and its limits are tested and defined through judicial interpretation. How has the RTI Act fared, where is it now, and what about the future?
The biggest achievement of the RTI Act is its survival in its original form despite various attempts, several devious, at amending it. The fact that a number of such attempts have been made is, in a way, testimony to the efficacy of the Act.
The Act is unique as the initiative for its implementation has to come from the citizens. The extensive usage is an indication of the sense of power that a common citizen now feels when confronting the establishment, proving the validity of the adage “information is power”.
While a large number of citizens have been able to resolve their day-to-day problems through RTI, some have also taken up bigger issues in attempts to bring about systemic changes in governance. The country was also witness to the strange phenomenon of the apex court appealing to one of the high courts, before accepting the applicability of RTI to itself. Similarly, all efforts by political parties to deny public access to their income-tax returns could not escape the sweep of the RTI Act.
Two broad groups have emerged as frequent users of RTI—
government employees and the media. Government employees have been using it to obtain information relating to their professional record. The media has used it as tool for investigative journalism. There have been sporadic and unconfirmed reports of its misuse bordering on attempted blackmailing.
The most disturbing aspect of the implementation of RTI has been the violent reaction to the efforts of some RTI activists. At the last count as many as eight activists have been murdered during the last five years and there have been numerous instances of less violent reactions and threats. Such reactions are also a testimony to the power of RTI to disturb vested interests.
The experience of the last five years shows that RTI has been very effective in achieving its objective, which is to create “an informed citizenry and transparency of information” which it maintains “are vital to (democracy’s) functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed”. That it has not realized its full potential is also true. But given the situation in which it is has functioned, its effect has been nothing but remarkable.
Ordinary citizens feel confident in asking questions from those that govern them. Of course, the effect is variable depending on the state of empowerment of the citizen, but instances of the illiterate rural poor, who are among the most deprived, using RTI to raise issues of social good and managing solutions are also known, as the example of Vasava shows.
Governance can be made even more transparent and people-centered if the RTI Act is used more effectively by citizens. Of course, improvements in the Act are possible, but the time is not ripe for its amendment. It needs to be “worked” more, and more experience gained in its usage. It has to judicially mature before amendments can even be contemplated.
What is urgently needed to make the Act more effective is transparency in the process of appointment of information commissioners. It is ironic that a fundamental aspect of an Act which itself is meant to ensure transparency, is shrouded in secrecy. While the file dealing with the appointment of information commissioners is open for inspection by anyone, it does not reveal any information on how decisions are taken, how some names are chosen to be placed before the so-called appointments committee and others are not. The fact that secretaries of the department that processes the appointments have themselves become information commissioners does not add to the objectivity of the process of appointments. As is well known, a law is as good as the people implementing it.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is former professor, dean, and director in-charge of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms (www.adrindia.org) and National Election Watch. He is also a member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.
Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org