A Decade of RTI: the status quo

Scribbled by Aishwarya Dhakarey on December 3, 2015

A Good Governance is a sine qua non[i] for a stable democracy. It is also affirmed that participatory democracy is the best form of democracy. Therefore, in order to bring governance in a democracy in tandem with public participation, there must be few entitlements or claims vested with citizens. Right to Information can be touted as a tool for citizen governance in the country today.  Information acts as a fulcrum for exercise of all other legal, economic and political rights and thus, every effort has been made to democratize information as a statutory right which was conferred upon by Right to Information Act, 2005. The jurisprudential basis for enacting this piece of legislation combined with the interpretation corresponding to each provision throws light on how RTI has been an efficient harbinger of information all these years but with few limitations. Under this legislation, an ordinary citizen now has access to information held by a public authority.[ii] As a necessary corollary, citizens are now seen to be empowered to make informed decisions and choices and can proactively scrutinize the working of every public authority. Not only is this, under the Act, one of the most commendable provision suo moto disclosure.[iii] One needs to go beyond the black letter analysis in order to monitor and ascertain the actual status quo in respect of the Act.

One of the underlying arguments here is that the information under the Act must be accessible by all. But the current situation is such that the population residing in the rural hinterlands is unaware of their powers under the Act and hence, cannot actively participate in decision making process at that level. Besides, certain rural schemes and programmes such as NREGA, Indira Awas Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY) etc are pestered with corruption which is compounded by the fact that the villagers are still incapable of utilizing RTI as an instrument to check corruption penetrating in these schemes and programmes. Various civil societies and NGOs must take a proactive approach here.

Another problem which needs to be effectively addressed is the backlog of RTI complaints and appeals which are pending with Central Information Commission/State Information Commission.  There are reported instances of redirecting queries, officials’ own ignorance and denying the receipt of  the request for information, etc.[iv] It is suggested that the disposal of RTI cases should be done in a time bound manner.

Alternatively, it can be said that there are specific clauses in the legislation itself which are subject to abuse by the bureaucrats. This premise is often supported by the fact that umpteen attacks on and murders of RTI activists are taking place under the nose of the authorities. Moresoever, all the government departments have backlogs of unresolved RTI applications. Notably, what is more required now is that each government department comes under the scrutiny and there are administrative reforms carried out that do away with their unnecessary discretionary powers. Speculations are rife that in a bid to minimise the burden of servicing RTI applicants, the government will put in place an effective system to deal with grievances and improve coordination and cooperation among departments.[v]

On examining the recent pronouncement by the Supreme Court on the question whether NGOs and Co-operative societies come under the purview of RTI[vi], it is found that the court answered in affirmative explaining that if the NGO/ co-operative society is availing any substantial financial support from the government then, NGO is a public authority within the meaning of  Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 and as such, will be bound to furnish information to Indian citizens. It is also imperative to realize that the various provisions of RTI are not merely reduced to mechanical provisions and remain functional. Another big lacuna with respect to RTI provisions is that if there is third party denial to disclose information, the application under Section 11 of the Act lapses. The ‘consent’ as required under the provision cannot be obtained in most of the cases. It is recommended here that the Public Information Officer should instead be empowered to determine if the sought information would actually be denying the right to privacy of the parties. Nevertheless, the conferred power or discretion should not be unguided. The statutory exemptions are encapsulated under Section 8 of the Act. It is to be noted that no information should be denied under the unnecessary garb of Section 8 that the there will be invasion of privacy if the information is allowed to be provided, so and so forth.

It is also to be remembered that under the same provision the fine line between the private and public domain of information should never be obliterated. The competent authority should carefully assess the circumstances keeping in mind that the private rights of an individual must not be encroached upon. Further, since the RTI completed a decade on June 20 amidst controversies and allegations of law-breaking, corruption and government influence, the authorities which are established under the Act need to come under scanner as well. To sum up with, thus far, there have only been attempts to plug the legislative loopholes. But in the RTI context, the focus needs to be also shifted to the execution and application part of the Act that too, beyond the reach of corrupted officials and government.

[i] An essential characteristic

[ii] M. M. Ansari, “Right to Information and its Relationship to Good Governance and Development”, <http://cic.gov.in/CIC-Events/IC-MA-LectureAtUNESCO-04122008.pdf> accessible 20 September, 2015

[iii] S. 4, RTI Act, 2005

[iv] Christin Mathew Philip, ‘Govt departments find loopholes in RTI Act to delay, deny information’,(Times of India, 14 April, 2014) <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/Govt-departments-find-loopholes-in-RTI-Act-to-delay-deny-information/articleshow/33714208.cms> accessed 20 September, 2015

[v] Aloysius Lopez, Local governments to offer information suo motu under RTI, (The Hindu, 19 September, 2015)

 <http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/local-governments-to-offer-information-suo-motu-under-rti/article7667260.ece> accessed 21 September, 2015

[vi] Thalappalam Ser. Coop. Bank Ltd. and others v.  State of Kerala and others 2013 AIR SCW 5683

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