Six years after it was passed, the Right to Information (RTI) Act evokes contrasting feelings. Among politicians and in officialdom, suspicion and hostility are dominant moods. Among citizens, hope and despair—in almost equal measure—are quite evident. It is against this backdrop that the Act’s future and its potential must be seen.
The RTI’s chief weakness can be seen at the ground level.
Citizens from rural areas—often disempowered in information terms—still have to wage an uphill battle to get the facts they seek. At the level of panchayats, sub-divisional offices and thanas, the niceties of the RTI framework are virtually non-existent. Activists have been killed or hounded for seeking information that is damaging.
At higher administrative levels—in state capitals and at the national level—the picture is somewhat brighter, but just so. Here, the release of “damaging” information is often picked up by news channels and papers and the ability of officials to prevent the flow of information openly is limited. They have, however, found a way to check activists. Exceptions under the Act, even if it is clear they don’t apply, are employed to take cases all the way up to the Central Information Commission (CIC).
Seen in this light, the difference between the two levels is only of degrees and not substance. If anything, a “debate” is being sought on the functioning of the RTI—disclosure of information, it is held, is impairing the functioning of government.
This is a contemptible argument and deserves to be set aside.
In almost all instances, what is feared is the disclosure of “damaging” information—information that shows official lapses. Looked from another vantage, if officials have not done any wrong, they should have no fear at the release of such facts. If anything, the vigilant information commissioners—both at the state and the national levels—are capable of disciplining those who seek to misuse such information. That, however, is not the issue—it is only an excuse.
The heart of the matter is that officials and politicians alike were unprepared for facing the RTI. If anything, they assumed that it would be another innovation that could be snared in red tape. Now that this has not happened, excuses are being proffered to dilute the ambit of the RTI.
The right approach would be for senior leaders to realize that information can no longer be withheld from those who need it in a costless manner. If the RTI Act is diluted, it will only lead to protests and upheaval.
Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
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