Right to Information RTI-Best Tool of Democracy:

According to Thomas Jefferson, “Information is the currency of democracy and critical to emergence and development of civil society”. The free flow of information is a basic human right. And the ability to seek, receive and share information is crucial for the respect of human rights. Let’s discuss the various dimension of Right to Information (RTI) and how can it be the best tool of democracy.

There are two dimensions of looking at it. One is “democratization of information”; which is the ability of every person to get the information they need; use it to make their decision making effective to make their life better.

While other is the creation of an information-driven society; that has access to all services and facilities with minimum bureaucratic and procedural bottlenecks. So, information Sharing and RTI is crucial.

Why Right to Information (RTI) considered as the Best Tool of Democracy:

Information is required at multiple levels. Firstly, people should be aware of their fundamental rights; as there are numerous instances where people are not even aware of their fundamental rights. E.g. Targeted Public Delivery System.

Secondly, people need to have information that will enable them to use government services. e.g. beneficiaries need to have information about the ration card registration process in order to get assistance. Thirdly, people should be able to demand the services which is provided by government and raise their respective grievance.

Thus awareness about rights, government services and facilities is central to democratization of information.

In this regard right to information (RTI) is an important milestone which empowers citizens to seek information from public authorities to make government more transparent, accountable and responsible.

What Max Waber Thinks:

As Max Weber once said that “secrecy is invention of bureaucracy in the interest of power”. Thus the scholar, who considered bureaucracy as most analytical instrument to exercise power; is also aware that, it tends to adopt secrecy to increase its strength.

As we know that the foundation of democracy is built on trust and mutual understanding between citizens and government. Furthermore, citizens decide the legitimacy of government. Hence citizens have the right to know about different administrative activities to sustain and strengthen this trust.

In the words of James Madison, one of the founding father of American Constitution; “a popular government without popular information or means to acquire it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”

Helps in Eradication of Corruption:

It is a well-known fact that less open government are bound to corrupt. Hence RTI deepens democracy and brings citizens closer to administration. RTI also improves the quality of decision making in public administration.

According to Aruna Roy, “The right to information touches all levels of governance. Even if one per cent of the country uses it. It can shape the democracy in the country”. Which makes information sharing and RTI more critical.

The debate for information sharing and RTI starts around the world; when Sweden becomes the first country to pass a convention on right to information in 1766. But it gains momentum after 1950, when numerous states had passed their respective right to information laws.

First Proposal of RTI in India:

In India, the idea of RTI is first proposed by Janata Party during 1977 Lok Sabha elections. Subsequently after election the Prime Minister Morarji Desai has constituted a committee to review Official Secret Act 1923; which is an essential impediment in the path of right to information. But the committee suggests, the official secret act should remain as it is with no change.

Further in 1986 Supreme Court in Mr Kulwal v/s Jaipur Municipal Corporation case; gives clear cut directive that “Freedom of Speech and expression under Art 19 implies citizens can not fully utilize the right to information as without information freedom of speech and expression”.

Again in eve of 1989 Lok Sabha elections; National Front pitches for an “open government” with promise that RTI would be enshrined in the Constitution. But the idea does not materialize in the form of passing of an RTI Act.

Path Breaking by Arun Roy’s Movement:

It is Aruna Roy’s movement initiates in Rajasthan in 1994 that has been quite path-breaking. An organization calls “Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan” which does immense work through “Jan Sunwai” or public hearing to demand information and accountability from government.

And subsequently, this movement forces the Rajasthan government to declare the government expenditure on all developmental projects. Getting inspiration from Rajasthan government, central government-appoints Justice P.B. Mehta committee in 1996 to draft a model right to information bill. In between, Tamil Nadu became the first Indian state to pass the RTI act in 1997. Later NDA government introduces Freedom of information bill.

In meantime Supreme Court in PUCL v/s UOI, 2004 case declares right to information as a fundamental right under Art 19 of Indian Constitution. Consequently, in 2005 the government of Indian passed the RTI Act in 2005, giving power to every Indian to know about various administrative procedures.

Two Features Of Right to Information (RTI) in Democracy:

RTI comprises of mainly two features regarding disclosure of any information. First it authorize SUO Moto disclosure of their organization’s functions, powers and duties of its officers and employs and financial information.

The main intent behind SUO Moto disclosure is public should need minimum recourse through the act to obtain such information. And next is when information is asked then disclosure of information within 30 days through Public Information Officers(PIO) appointed in each organization.

Apart from this, there are three-tier structure to deal with issues pertaining to disclosure of information. If information is asked from a particular department is provided by PIO; within 30 days then appeal goes to the appellate authority. And appeals against appellate authority goes to State Information Commissioner and Central Information Commissioner(CIC).

Although RTI Act laid the platform for a less corrupt, transparent and accountable government. But there are several problems in the implementation of RTI.

Lack of staff, pending RTI’s, delay in disposing of cases, role confusion among appointed officers, Official Secret Act 1923(especially sec 5), Evidence Act 1872( sec 123), pressure on RTI activists, delay in appointment of state IC’s and CIC, judicial intervention, less suo moto information etc. are some of the impediments in implementation of RTI.

Amendment Act of 2019 on information sharing and RTI :

Added to this, the current RTI Amendment Act 2019; further tries to weaken the institution of RTI. According to the current act, the central government will notify the term of office, salaries and allowances of CIC and IC’s at both the centre and state.

While earlier the term of both state IC’s and CIC was five years and status of CIC and State IC’s were equal to Chief Election Commissioner and Chief Secretary respectively.

With this amendment, the commission which is vested by law with the status of independence and authority will now function like department of central government subject to the same hierarchy and demand for obedience.

Amending the term and condition of CIC is to an extent understandable, but defining rules, terms and conditions of State IC’s is against the idea of federalism.

The argument given in favour of the amendment by the government is that since CIC is the statutory body, not a constitutional body. So, there is no point in giving CIC the status of Chief Election Commissioner.

But the argument is highly flawed because many bodies like CVC, NHRC are also statutory bodies but their salaries, allowances and tenures are fixed.

More Arguments by The Government:

Another argument from the government on information sharing and RTI is; since the decision of CIC are even challenged in High courts then giving CIC equal status to Supreme Court Judge causes legal hindrances.

But many experts counter this argument as decisions of Prime Minister and President also challenged before High courts. Their status does not prevent such challenges.

Apart from this, how current amendment being passed without any citizen consultation; bypassing examination by standing committee is in complete contrast to parliamentary democracy.

Power in democratic setup shouldn’t be centralized as separation of power is vital to our democratic checks and balances. Hence, robust RTI ensures social audit of government actions and increases transparency and accountability in administration; hence RTI should not have been diluted.

Closing Key Note on Right to Information (RTI)- the best weapon of democracy :

Though we have information sharing and RTI; which is far from flawlessness; but passing RTI is not a substitute for administrative reforms. Government processes needs to be restructured, which promotes openness in governance operations.

Further to make RTI effective we need, to develop an Effective Management Information System(MIS), simplification of RTI procedures, creating awareness about RTI through school syllabus and awareness campaigns. As only 30 -40 % Indians know about RTI, extension of RTI to Public-Private Partnership (PPP) and the amendment to colonial laws like the Official Secret Act 1923 and the Indian Evidence Act 1872.

To simplify the procedures of RTI Bihar government has 24 hours phone line service in Patna which take and record such calls and pass it respective government departments from which a person is seeking information. Apart from this recently launched Jan Soochna Portal(JSP) by Rajasthan government is a remarkable step in furtherance of RTI.

JSP has details of every activity of government such as availability of food grains and ration shops and their distribution, implementation of various schemes and their beneficiaries, details of farmer’s whose loan is waived off, list of mines in every district, provides an area where mining is permitted, production and royalties and taxes paid. Other states also needs to follow and develop such an initiative to further citizen-centric governance.

Last Verdict:

In the end, we can say, information to all is the foundation of democracy and public vigilance is fundamental to democratic citizenship. Thus reform in governance processes coupled with creating awareness among citizens is a basic ingredient to make governance transparent, open and accountable.