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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

RTI : Right to Democracy

Just imagine this situation. You apply for a water connection. It probably takes about 3 weeks to get one but its more than one month and no news about it. What can you do? Normally, nothing except making rounds of sarkari offices pleading for the connection and making the necessary payments to get it done. But the Right to Information Act (RTI) promises to actually resolve this problem. Under the act, you can file an application to the concerned department asking for an explanation for the time delay, the persons involved, the current situation etc. and they have to give a reply within 30 days or face salary deduction as a penalty. Since it is easier to provide the connection than give this information and acknowledge the delay, your problem is solved.

For years, we have been subjected to the opaque and mysterious ways of the Government. Any information that is sought is tendered classified. Ever wondered what is so confidential about the progress of Govt. projects or the utilization of funds under various schemes. We have also not questioned it because somewhere deep down, there was a feeling that the Government knows better and that it has the right to take a call on all these issues. But increasing media scrutiny and penetration is changing all that and people are questioning the relevance of all this secrecy exhibited by the Government.

In late 2005, the Indian Parliament passed the Central Right to Information Act, a watershed act in the history of democracy. This bill has made waves as the most powerful Right to Information Act in the world, despite over 60 countries already having a law on Freedom of Information. Nine other states in India also have their own regional RTI Acts. Ironically, this widely touted achievement of the UPA Govt. is now being subjected to dilution in the name of improvements in the law. The bureaucracy is up in arms against this law and has put across the following fears.

It will lead to victimization of officers and possible blackmails.
This would affect only tainted officers so why the fear? The Act will help in knowing what actually happened behind closed doors and if it is being used to blackmail dishonest officers, does it matter? Misuse may happen but then the fear of misuse cannot be a strong reason for non-implementation of any law. There are adequate norms to handle “sensitive” issues within the law itself like Section 8 (dealing with a set of issues that can be exempted from this like those that constitute breach of privilege, trade secrets, cabinet purposes etc) and Section 24 (lists Govt. organizations which cannot be probed).

Lack of infrastructure to handle the huge volumes of information expected to be sought under the law.
Well, if there’s an infrastructure constraint, the government needs to gear up for this and not complaint about “over burdening” our bureaucrats. Current statistics have shown that the Delhi Govt. has received on an average 7 RTI applications per Department per month and this is expected to increase. I am sure that our poor officers are capable of handling such huge volumes every month.

A large number of frivolous applications will be filed.
The Central Information Commissioner’s (CIC) RTI application has been widely quoted as one such example of frivolous activism. The CIC, O P Kejriwal, had sought information about officers who have been allotted official accommodation since last November because there was a delay in providing him accommodation. But then who is to determine what is frivolous and what is not? My application for a pending water connection may be frivolous for any babu but it is critical for me.

Allowing access to file notings may prevent honest officers from giving their advice or may lead to bad blood between the officers.
I’m not too sure what the logic behind this criticism is. On the contrary, it will encourage them to come forth with their honest views and many officers have vouched for that. File notings contain the decision making process – it contains the procedure followed in awarding contracts, the time taken for awarding contracts, the people involved, the recommendations and overruling that has happened whereas files contain only the final decisions without capturing the process information.

The law in its current shape, however, only addresses public institutions involved with the Government. The corporate world is no holy cow and it is imperative to ensure that the next step is to bring private institutions under the purview of this act. Ofcourse, we may see intense lobbying by corporates to prevent this, under the guise of “confidential information”. It is more so relevant now as the government seeks to withdraw from various businesses and hand over all such roles to private parties. Bureaucrats have among the lowest credibility in the country and rank just next to politicians when it comes to honest indices. This Act gives an opportunity for the cadre to redeem its reputation and improve its lackadaisical image. But they seem hell bent upon making the Act a lame duck tool by citing various technicalities.

Sonia Gandhi has managed to postpone the tabling of the revised amendment of the RTI Act which seeks at addressing these fears but actually dilutes the efficacy of the law. But with the Government and the bureaucrats keen on pushing this across somehow, there’s a real danger of the law being some other footnote on the history. Infact, the Cabinet cleared the amendment in less than 20 minutes without even a formal debate on this. Hopefully, the vigilant media and activists will ensure that we do not consign this act to flames.

It’s time we use this law ourselves and start making a difference. Organisations like Parivartan and Bhumi have been working on popularising this Act among people. Interested people may check the following site for more information on RTI - http://www.ndtv.com/rti/faqs.asp .

As a start, I plan to use this law to obtain information on my income tax refund which has been pending with the Government for more than a year now.

4 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff... I'm going to have to bookmark this and come back later to check it out. Off to work for now. I know, I work late, but there's no traffic!
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  2. One of the best blogs that u have written till now…very good work.

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  3. ANything that enforces transparency and political accountability is desirable

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  4. Latest Updates on RTI:

    A year after IOC executive S Manjunath was allegedly murdered by the oil mafia in Uttar Pradesh, a trust devoted to his memory on Sunday started a helpline to build awareness on Right To Information Act and instituted an award for individuals fighting corruption.

    The Manjunath Shanmugham Trust and 'Parivartan', an NGO promoting the RTI Act, jointly launched the RTI helpline.Callers can ring up the number 9250400100 for assistance.

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