Secrecy in the time of RTI

Secrecy in the time of RTI

There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know." India’s Right to Information Act can be seen as an effort to remedy the second condition in former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous comment. But after more than five years of the Act’s birth, the act of knowing is still up against hurdles. Mint reported on Friday that various public institutions—which would normally come under RTI’s ambit—are playing truant with the right to information.

The problem, as always, is about interpretation of a given legislation. The Act marks those organizations for public scrutiny that are funded by “substantial" public money. However, it doesn’t specify how much “substantial" is—a gap that is now being merrily exploited.

This leads to a curious situation. Many of the organizations seeking exemption from the Act are public-private partnerships (PPPs). By their nature, these exist in a sort of gray area between the public and private. A large number of them work in sectors that were once the preserve of the government. While private participation in these sectors is welcome, it results in some ambiguity about whom these companies should be accountable to. That question of accountability, as Mint’s report shows, stretches all the way from cooperative societies to the defence and intelligence sectors.

To be sure, national interest demands secrecy at times (try telling WikiLeaks that). But this too often turns into an excuse to hide. Far from enabling stakeholders (taxpayers, for example) to examine the workings of the institutions they pay for, such predilection for secrecy disempowers them. The shortfall in accountability ultimately curtails the organization’s performance.

The right to information is crucial to functionalizing a democracy, because information asymmetries introduce cracks in the democratic process, and concentrate discretion in the hands of a few. Properly implemented, RTI can lead to a kind of progressive transparency, where one revelation can lead to further scrutiny and other revelations, ad infinitum. Unless this is enabled, we will never get to know what Rumsfeld called unknown unknowns, “the ones that we don’t know we don’t know".

RTI: public scrutiny or invasion of privacy? Tell us at