Citizen’s participation is one of the main ingredients for a successful democracy. It is very important to make information available and put up government records for scrutiny under the control of public authorities. These factors led to facilitation of a legislative mechanism, the Right to Information (RTI) Act. RTI can be defined as an Act of the Parliament of India, “to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens”. The act expressly mandates that every public authority shall provide reasons for its administrative and quasi-judicial decisions in order to promote transparency and accountability. In 2004, UPA Government initiated drafting of RTI under National Advisory Council (NAC), with Aruna Roy acting as torch-bearer for RTI Act formulation. When the bill was introduced for first time, it was to apply only to the Union Government. NCPRI forced government to review and introduce it with many amendments. Finally, RTI Act was passed on 13th October, 2005 in Parliament. This led to re-establishment of faith in democracy. In recent years, RTI has become a global trend. The need for RTI Act was felt to ensure accountability and responsiveness to community needs.
This RTI Act 2005 provides an opportunity to access information relating to Public authorities. The act defines ‘information’ as any material in any form including records, documents, memos, emails, opinions, advices, press releases, orders, contracts, reports, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any law for the time it being in force. In this way RTI has led to a major shift in governance culture and has tried to transfer the power of democracy into the hands of people. This Act was to counter the ‘Official Secrets Act’ which was imposed by the Britishers in 1923. Under the guise of this act red-tapism, malpractices, highhandedness, and deep rooted corruption flourished. RTI is derived from the Fundamental Rights, freedom of speech under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
This demand for Right to Information came from civil society group, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) led by Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey. They, along with poor villagers in Beawar, Rajasthan resorted to dharana for demanding reasons for non-payment of wages to workers. This led to foundation of RTI movement. National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and Press Council of India formulated the draft of RTI in 1996. Government finally introduced Freedom of Information Bill in Parliament in 2002, but unfortunately it could not become an Act.
For RTI to be implemented at all levels such as, union, state, local levels and to legislature, executive and judiciary, an institutional mechanism was established consisting of Central Information Commission (CIC), State Information Commission (SIC), Public Information Officers (PIO) and Appellate Authorities. CIC was meant to admit cases when applicant was not satisfied with response to the request from central authority, and as second appeal mechanism, when wrong information is provided and request not accepted at lower level. Hence, it acts as a monitoring body at apex level. It also emphasises establishment of SIC, but as per second ARC report, 6 states have not formed SIC including Bihar, Jharkhand, Sikkim.
Along with RTI, there are other similar legislative mechanisms also for strengthening RTI like Whistle-blower Protection Bill, 2011, Grievance Redressal Bill, Lokpal, Lokayuktas etc. Initiation for Whistle-blower Protection Bill began after killing of Satyendra Dubey who disclosed scam in NHAI in 2004. India, a signatory of UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) under Article 33, also obliges government to protect whistleblowers. Findings by Commonwealth HR Initiative (CHRI) disclose that in past 10 years, 49 RTI activists have been killed, and 260 assaults have been made on activists.
Grievance Redressal Bill makes way for citizens to get entitlement from the government and failure of delivery of RTI information would lead to action against government officials, leading to assurance of quality of service. Lokpal, Lokayukta also lean towards fighting against corruption along with RTI. Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010, Right to Service also strengthens the culture of transparency in the country. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana has given rural face to RTI, while activists like Anjali Bhardwaj, Satish Shetty are active in urban areas. There have been strong movements in states like Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat. In Maharashtra, movement against corruption was laid by Anna Hazare, who circulated RTI Bill in Marathi language at the district and Taluka level. He went on fast at Anandi in 1996 for demanding RTI from the side of government. Maharashtra Government established special to address the issue within 2 months, imposing a fine of ₹100 fine delay of information per day.
The main role of RTI is the creation, maintenance and dissemination of information, like disclosure of PDS database, full life cycle of citizen database etc. But this Act is not immune from challenges. It faces challenge in administration like structural, procedural, logistical issues. First of all, filing a request is difficult for the common man, due to apathy of officials and insistence on demand draft as a method of payment. So he has to spend ₹35 as bank charges to pay RTI fees of ₹10. Rate of disposal of cases is low. This is especially because of vacancy of posts in CIC and SIC. Several RTI activists have been killed, one of them was Satish Shetty, who exposed land scams in Maharashtra and was murdered in 2010. Amit Jethwa was murdered in front of Gujarat HC in broad day light, for fighting against illegal mining. Shehla Masood who fought against poaching of tigers in Madhya Pradesh was also murdered. There are many exemptions under Section 8 of the Act under the guise of security, defence, foreign policy, law enforcement, public safety and Cabinet papers.
RTI has created millions of Lokpal and has led to empowerment of citizens. Right to information is right to democracy. It has led to exposure of scandals like Vyapam, administrative and recruitment scam, irregularities in PDS, MGNREGA human rights violation in communal riots at Godhra, under AFSPA etc. The answer keys of civil service examination and IIT-JEE now available on the websites of the Union Public Service Commission and IIT-JEE respectively, helping students to find out their scores even before the official announcement. Assets and wealth declaration of all public servants – PM and his entire Council of Ministers, civil servants – are now in public domain. Furthermore, the government is trying to expand the ambit of RTI by bringing more and more functionaries under its ambit like Supreme Court has asked government to bring political parties under the RTI scanner and recently the Strategic Force Command which forms the part of National Command Authority (NCA) has been added to the Second Schedule of the RTI Act, 2005.
Despite the issues, the role of RTI is significant. Specially, the culture of transparency brought about by the RTI Act in the past decade has now made it easier for citizens to access parliamentary proceedings online, and track proceedings of various state legislatures etc. However, it needs to be developed further e.g. the legislatures in the North-East and lower courts are yet to put up ‘documents regarding their proceedings’ proactively. In addition to this, protection of the information seekers and whistleblowers needs to be ensured. Its implementation loopholes like the absence of information commissioner, delay in furnishing information, giving false information etc. needs to be addressed. To conclude, we can say that this act has been conceived and delivered in a better shape and it will lead India to move forward by reducing corruption in government departments. It is a recognition of the fact that democracy requires informed citizenry and transparency of information just for better functioning.