On 12th October 2020, RTI finished fifteen years since its commencement. The question remains whether the legislation stands up to its promises.
India, one of the biggest democracies in the world, has lost its democratic thread in the recent past. Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of democracy. Dissent is another pillar of democracy. All this looks lost, and we don’t know where the country is headed next. There are lacunae in the working of every institution and public system. There is a dire need for proper implementation and organized institutions in society. The nation’s democratic credentials are at their ebb when information is not furnished when asked for. And those who seek information are murdered and tortured. Information is power. It has the power to curb the misuse of powerful positions also. The information helps in ensuring transparency and accountability in influential positions. While information is in the ‘public interest’ to disclose, many of the people who seek information are accused of transgressing individual privacy. In such a background, how far is it beneficial for the state to provide a right to information at the cost of another fundamental right of privacy? But it can be a necessary evil for a well-structured society. We live in an asymmetrical information society, where lack of information leads to some of the worst exploitations in any field. Information asymmetry is the cause of institution failures in many nations. Government has some of the crucial information that makes it more difficult to run a free country. This being the case, it is very important to have a right to information and legislation dedicated exclusively for that purpose.
What is RTI?
Right to Information (RTI) Act is a consolidated act. It is for acquiring information related to government or public authorities. It empowers citizens with the right to information. The right to information has been recognized as a fundamental right under the constitution of India. It has been covered under the purview of Article 19(1)(a) through the broad interpretation of the Supreme court. The history of this act goes back to 2000 when there were discussions about the Freedom of Information Bill. This bill was enacted in 2002. Then finally the country saw the most groundbreaking legislation of RTI in 2005. When the discussions of Freedom of Information Bill were going on, the parliamentarians knew the ramifications of such legislation. They didn’t know the extent of it, but they knew there would be a change in the democratic system when there are departments exclusively to provide information. The only caveat of this act was that the government had chances to twist for its purpose. Which is when the RTI Act came to the rescue. The government being the custodian of a wealth of information termed as official documents, the citizens needed a weapon to acquire the information. RTI came in handy.
The objective of the act is very clearly stated in the preamble of the act. We can identify three main objectives in the act. It is stated as an Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities. Second, it is used to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority. Third, the act specifies for the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. The objective gives clarity on the intent and aim of the legislation. The main aim of the act is to empower the citizens with the right to information and access to it with proper guidelines. Right to know and right to information is an integral part of freedom of speech as interpreted by the judiciary. Freedom of speech is the lifeline of a democracy. This act has a high constitutional value. Like any other law in our country, even this act has some lacunae. There are chances of the act being used at the whims and fancies of the government. As much as it seems like a weapon, it does also include certain necessary restrictions. The right to information, like many rights, is not absolute. The act restricts disclosure of information which may affect the privacy of individuals and sovereignty and integrity of the nation and many other categories which are listed under section 8 of the act.
Fifteen years of the journey is not a simple task. This act neither failed nor was a complete success. It has faced many hurdles in its journey. Be it in implementation or interpretation. It has been hard to implement such an act that has a great impact on the functioning of authorities. Not any authorities but the public authorities. Although the legislation has gained great importance over the years, there are very few people aware of its existence. When the literary rate in our country is itself very low, then we cannot expect people to know about such acts and their uses. India has become a country where it is difficult to earn a livelihood and feed yourself. In such a scenario, we might ask who will be concerned about information. The answer would be, without this legislation, the government might turn into a monarchy. That fear of responsibility and accountability will be completely gone. So for firsts, the act is required for good governance.
It is very important to protect information seekers. There are allegations that the act is being diluted. The information activists are being tortured. Such instances instil fear in the minds of citizens and deter them from using the act. It is slowly turning into a toothless monster. The implementation of this legislation also suffers from lack of proper officers. There is a lack of skilled personnel and the misuse of the act. The information officers are indulging in fraudulent practices. The authorities of the act are becoming a setback. The appellate authority being the worst. Although there is an increase in the number of applications over the years, many are going unanswered or continuously transferred. There is a need for reforms. At the same time, there has been an amendment in 2019. That amendment is claimed as a direct attack on the people’s right to information.
Fifteen years have been a dramatic journey rather than a historical one. In the beginning, the act was used to expose many frauds and exploitations. But now the act itself is fraudulent and used at the command of the government. Many appeals are pending, and much more information concealed. The act should reach its golden years at some point and be a yardstick for the government’s performance. Until then, it should not just be a mirage of transparency. It should be implemented to benefit people and fulfil their promise.
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