It is now two years since the Right to Information (RTI) Act was passed by Parliament in June 2005, thus giving citizens the right to examine government documents. Almost on cue, senior officers in the Central Information Commission (CIC) have made statements against the “frivolous” use of the Act. It appears that most of the applications that come in are from civil servants who want to figure out why they have been passed over for a sought-after promotion. It is ironical that the very class that was opposed to the Act is now its most enthusiastic user.
It is easy and dangerous to reach the wrong conclusion from this curious trend. That civil servants are using the Act to climb their career ladders does not mean that the right to information is of little use for the rest of society. We have already seen it put to good use a few times. Social activist Aruna Roy used the provisions of the Act in Rajasthan to show how labourers working on government projects were paid less by contractors than what had been agreed upon. And Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan, an NGO, showed how ration shop owners and corrupt officials siphoned off 87% of the wheat and 94% of the rice meant for the poor in Delhi.
That said, there is little doubt that the Act is not yet used as much as it should be, though activists and ordinary citizens have used it to great effect in certain states such as Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. The real challenge now is to ensure that the right to information spreads—both geographically and in terms of the sort of information that can be mined using it.
Governments at all levels, despite their tall talk, have not been too enthusiastic about the RTI. There was a lot of controversy last year, when the Union government said the jottings made by ministers and senior bureaucrats in the relevant files could not be seen by users of the Act. This was (and is) ridiculous. There is also the provision that files on public projects will be publicly available when a particular project is completed. A long-term project, say a dam that needs many years to be completed can be scrutinized only when a scrutiny is pointless.
The scope of the Act needs to be expanded. As a financial daily, this newspaper also believes certain regulatory information needs to be brought into the public domain, rather than it being hidden behind departmental rules and the Official Secrets Act. The recent move to bring the stock markets under the purview of the RTI Act is welcome.
The second big challenge is to try and let more and more citizens know about RTI and what they can do about it. A front-page story published in this newspaper on Thursday shows how little has been done here. The government has yet to publish even a single advertisement on how citizens can use the RTI Act. This is scandalous, especially when the government has no qualms about placing full-page advertisements for pointless ribbon-cutting ceremonies featuring ministers (the power to place RTI advertisements rests with a department in the home ministry, rather than with the CIC).
Yet, there is little doubt that the passage of the RTI Act is a huge step towards more open governance. Open governance will not just help citizens to claim their rights, it will also spur economic growth, especially by curbing corruption (let us not forget that government expenditure is nearly 15% of India’s GDP, and much of it is wasted).
Given the right people in the CIC and state public information offices, the Act, for all its problems and obstacles, has transformational powers. In conjunction with the computerization of government processes and e-governance, the right to information can change the balance of power between the state and civil society.
And that is welcome.
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