There is only one way India can become a leading country in the 21st century global economy—by ensuring unhindered deployment of its right to information (RTI) law and universally enabling it with the Internet.
On 12 October, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a critical remark in this regard. “There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the (RTI) Act in demanding information, the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose,” he said. “Such queries, besides serving little productive social purpose, are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man-hours that could be put to better use.” It is ironical that Singh is so concerned when only 1 million RTI queries were recorded last year from the huge 1.2 billion people living in the country. Clearly, large segments of the population have practically no access to information, the main reason why they often cannot exercise their rights.
I would like to discuss how our country suffers because of this lack of enabling access to information and how the sheer number of such population is so mindboggling that the Prime Minister should first look at them and be concerned till the RTI reaches each one of them.
The RTI law requires all government departments to proactively put their information in the public domain, which includes office walls, panchayat notice boards, school building walls, block office walls and notice boards, and media vehicles such as radio, television, newspapers, short messaging services, interactive voice response, toll free numbers and the Internet. Among these, the Internet is the only one that can be treated as truly permanent, unlimited space for public access. All other media is limited, paid, temporary and perishable.
Has the Internet reached the masses? According to industry lobby group Internet and Mobile Association of India and market researcher IMRB, out of 833 million people living in rural areas, only 38 million use the Internet. Ironically, out of the 900 million mobile phone subscribers, only 323 million are from rural India and only 3.6 million of them use their devices to access the Internet, which is only 12% of the total Internet users.
The government’s information kiosks, known as common service centres (CSCs), and cyber cafes are the most used access points for Internet usage in villages, so much so that almost 60% of all the Internet users in rural India use CSCs to access the Web by travelling on an average 6-10km. There are some 95,000 Internet-enabled CSCs mostly located in rural areas that promise to provide government-to-citizen and business-to-citizen services. While a major percentage of them are struggling for sustainability, 90% of the country is suffering from an information gap and is yet to take advantage of the Internet.
There could be many ways to save RTI from being gagged and make it a national phenomenon. One is to make all the CSCs double up as RTI kiosks, where citizens seek information and request information through the RTI Act. Secondly, government should set a deadline and ensure each and every official entity make their information public through their ministry, department and functionaries, and this line of action should go down till the level of the village councils.
The only way RTI would become a non-issue is by ensuring government information is already in the public domain and essentially on the Internet—and proactively. Till such time, it would be ideal for the nation’s leaders to always talk in favour of RTI rather than against it. Also, curbing RTI is directly proportional to making the country poor in information, ensuring that India remains a poor country unfit for the 21st century that relies so much on the information economy.
In addition, the government can also ensure an RTI-friendly, Internet-enabled 250,000 public access points by complementing the installation of high-speed fibre optic broadband lines reaching all village councils. This confluence of Internet, RTI and village councils will only strengthen our democracy.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is a member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communications and information technology. Follow him on Twitter @osamamanzar.