By Upasana Hembram
In 2004, in the first winter session of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Parliament, a group of activists approached Prime Minister Manmohan Singh requesting him to introduce a legislation that guaranteed its citizens the Right to Information (RTI). With an exuberant new government, the Bill was introduced in that winter session, passed in June of 2005 by Parliament, and became a law on October 13, 2005. The Right to Information Act, 2005 grants every Indian citizen the right to investigate and seek information from any public authority. This was a landmark legislation in the way Indian democracy functioned as it promoted accountability and transparency giving more power to the people.
RTI: Past success and shortcomings
In the past, RTI has proven to be a paramount legal weapon in exposing several scandals at the national and state levels involving politicians and civil servants. Its success stories include bringing the following scams to light – Mumbai’s Adarsh Housing scam, gross misconduct during the Commonwealth games held in 2010, and inconsistencies in the allocation of 2G spectrum and licences in 2008. Besides these, it also paved the way to guarantee other equally crucial rights like the right to food security, the right to education, and the right to employment.
However, statistically, the RTI Act has been primarily successful in obtaining personal information or any other insipid information, for that matter. It has not had a similar level of accomplishment among the citizens or into the government machinery in matters of indoctrination of the value of transparency and accountability. This reaction is not surprising given the long pendency of cases in information commissions, reluctance among the judiciary and how casually public authorities handle RTI.
Call for draft amendments
In its 12th year of existence, the Centre issued a circular seeking public opinion on draft amendments to the RTI rules. The draft amendment does not suggest a total revamp of the existing rules and retains almost 60-65% of the content as prescribed in the 2012 rules.
One of its key provisions deals with non-compliance of orders and directives of the Central Information Commission (CIC), whose primary activities are that of an administrative body rather than a quasi-judicial body, contrary to public perception. It states that the cases concerning public interest shall now be recommended to be placed before larger benches of the CIC. Missing from the 2012 rules, the inclusion of these provisions are warmly welcomed. However, it also empowers the CIC to permit withdrawal of an application, if another appellant provides a written request for the same.
The draft amendments have proposed mechanisms of filing appeals and complaints that are as arduous as complicated court procedures. With the Modi government aggressively pushing for a digital transformation in the country, it makes little sense that the new rules include outdated forms of providing information via diskettes and floppies.
Blurred line between the good and bad it can do?
The biggest concern among activists and members of civil society is the rule that allows for appeal proceedings to end with the applicant’s death. Such a move greatly endangers the lives of RTI applicants, since, regardless of whether the death is natural or unnatural, the death of an applicant will result in curbing ongoing or pending RTI applications. Even in the absence of such a provision in the past, there have been recorded instances of assault on citizens who were trying to unearth wrongdoings among public authorities. These attacks usually resulted in unnatural deaths, physical onslaught and several threats accompanied with persisting harassment causing few of the applicants to end their own life.If this rule becomes a law at the Centre, other states will follow suit creating more obstacles and jeopardising the safety of active citizens who want to access information for the benefit of their fellow citizens. Another ramification of this proposed rule would be the slowing down of ongoing cases as a fresh RTI would have to be filed bringing the proceedings back to square one.
If this rule becomes a law at the Centre, other states will follow suit creating more obstacles and jeopardising the safety of active citizens who want to access information for the benefit of their fellow citizens. Another ramification of this proposed rule would be the slowing down of ongoing cases as a fresh RTI would have to be filed bringing the proceedings back to square one.
Following the tradition of inviting public opinion on draft amendments, the rule-making process remains a bureaucratic one instead of a citizen-friendly one. After the Constitution of India, the RTI Act has been the best thing to happen to Indian democracy and still remains the most potent tool to combat opacity in public office. Even though this may not be a second revolution, the draft amendment must address the failures of the 2012 rules without compromising the safety and well-being of Indian citizens.
Featured image credits: The Wire.