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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 35 August 18, 2018

The RTI Regime: Retrospect and Prospect

Thursday 16 August 2018

by Rajvir S. Dhaka

Although the Right to Information has been declared by the Supreme Court of India, in various judgments, as a right inherent in Article 19(A) of the Fundamental Rights given in the Indian Constitutions, as is evident from the perusal of Aruna Roy and MKSS Collective, The RTI Story (2018), the RTI regime could be institutionalised in India only in 2005 after a long and sustained struggle by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information on (NCPRI). The formation of the Left Front-backed UPA (I) Government in 2004 and the inclusion of committed persons, like Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze in the National Advisory Council, had also facilitated it.

The RTI Act (2005) granted all the citizens of India to seek information from all the public authorities within the stipulated time-frame. It not only set up an information regime comprising at the Assistant Public Information Officers (APIOs), Public Information Officers (PIOs), First Appellate Authorities (FAAs), but also made provision for Self-Disclosure of Information by all the public authorities at the sub-district, district, State, and national levels. Besides the Central Information Commissions and State Information Commissions were set up to not only act as the Second Appellate Authorities (SAAs) but also for acting as the watchdogs of the RTI Regime.

However, this game-changer, which aimed at the dawn of a transparent, responsible, responsive and people-friendly regime for ensuring good governance and for deepening democracy in India, has been facing clandestine resistence from the bureaucracy and the political elite right from the outset.

Moreover, it has been grappling with the operational problems like poor suo-moto disclosure, ambiguities in definitions, poor maintenance of records, appointment of junior and untrained officers as the PIOs and the pressures on them to not to discharge their duties honestly and denial of infrastructural facilities and incentives to them. The packing of the Information Commissions with loyal retired civil servants and the other faithful from various strata and the negative attitude of a section of the judiciary has further compounded the problem. But at the same time those information-seekers who misuse the provisions of the RTI Act for blackmailing the public servants and for harnessing their colleagues and those who have been seeking frivolous information have also brought a bad name to the RTI regime. The persistence of confusion in interpreting forms and the formats, lack of clarity on postal charges in the RTI rules of various States and the inadequacy of uniformity in these and heavy cost of information have been other impediments in the path of smooth functioning of the RTI regime.

It is being argued that activisation of public authorities, better management of records through computerisation, effective suo-moto disclosures by the public authorities appointment of senior officers as PIOs or creation of a separate cadre for them and improving their service conditions or giving them adequate incentives and protection may be able to retrieve the situation. The streamlining of the working of the Information Commissions through the appointment of persons with a legal bent of mind, and making it obligatory for them to undergo Induction Programmes before joining. Besides, the grant of financial autonomy as well as the power to punish non-compliers, the offenders under the Contempt of the Commission and such other steps that may prove functional for the RTI regime.

But these are very simplistic explanations of the malady and superfluous suggestions for a deep-rooted problem which is multi-dimensional in character. Its roots can be traced to the persistence of the colonial culture of the bureaucracy, continued absence of a civic culture among the citizens and the perennial reluctance of the particular elite for empowering the citizens. Likewise, capacity-building of the Information-seekers through awareness campaigns and of the Information-providers through systematic training would not suffice because the very mindsets of both needs to be changed by creating a culture of transparency among the former and the civic culture among the latter.

Above all, the civil society will have to remain vigilant for fostering the attempts of the political dispensation to weaken the Information regime in the name of reforming it by formulating the RTI Rules and by changing the service conditions of the Information Commissioners. Otherwise, the sacrifices of the RTI activists who lost their lives for protecting the RTI regime would prove to be exercises in futility. It is better late than never. Let us remember, it has been aptly said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The media will also have to remain vigilant for acting as the watchdog of the RTI regime. Above all, the public intellectuals will have to play a pro-active role in this context. The protest by the RTI activists at New Delhi against the attempts to undermine the RTI regime alone would not be enough to dissuade those who are hell-bent upon doing so.

It may be added by way of a footnote that Prof Iqbal Narian, a doyen among the political scientists, had famously remarked that, in the ultimate analysis, it is the constitutional reality that determines the political reality. It may be supplemented by the observation that the institutional reality also depends on the political reality. The commitment of the ruling dispensation is the basic pre-requisite for the success of the RTI regime in India.

Dr Rajvir S. Dhaka is a Senior Faculty Member and In-charge, RTI Help Desk, Haryana Institute of Public Administration, Gurugram (Haryana).

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