While Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi insists the Act brought transparency into governance, Congressmen say it has become the party’s bane, says Kavita Chowdhury… As the band of dedicated RTI activists grows, several have become targets. Approximately 250 activists have been killed in the past nine years…Politicians who have been attacking the CAG for its zeal in unearthing scams like those over selling air waves to telecom companies and allocation of coal blocks, could face a formidable challenge if ordinary citizens armed with the RTI were to aid the auditor…
The United Progressive Alliance Government at the Centre lists the Right to Information Act — enacted in 2005 — among its foremost contributions during a decade in power. While Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi insists the Act brought transparency into governance, Congressmen say it has become the party’s bane. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international non-Governmental organisation that works for human rights, estimates four million RTI applications were filed across the country in 2011-12.
A majority of these, 33.8 per cent, were filed in Maharashtra, followed by 32.5 per cent with the central Government. Armed with a right to seek information from public authorities, citizens have been using it to expose corruption and misgovernance. Prominent scams unearthed through the RTI include the Adarsh Housing scam in Mumbai and the mismanagement of finances during the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi. Venkatesh Nayak from the Access to Information Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi, said, “Even in the ninth year of its implementation, the RTI has not realised its potential. As far as imbibing the values of transparency in governance and responsibility of citizens are concerned, these areas need to be developed.”
Even the Government did not realise the extent to which the RTI could be used to demand accountability, he added. So, when the Central Information Commission ruled that the six national political parties were covered by the RTI, the Congress-led UPA Government moved the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013, to curtail it. But the controversy it generated forced Members of Parliament to send the Bill to a Parliamentary Standing Committee. The main obstacle to the RTI fulfilling its potential are bureaucrats who still treat it as a burden and provide information on a need-to-know basis. Nayak emphasises the right must be viewed holistically as a provider of information, supplemented by digitisation of records and routine disclosures. Transparency in governance also entails administrative reforms the authorities are reluctant to undertake. The ineffectiveness of information commissions is another factor hampering the RTI.
Activists have been opposing the Government’s practice of appointing retired bureaucrats as information commissioners. Those who spent their professional lives opposing disclosure of information are unlikely to be votaries for access to information, activists claim. The UPA has also failed to implement the awareness activities it was required to undertake in the countryside, thereby restricting the Act’s impact to cities. Maharashtra and Karnataka lead in the number of RTI applications filed mainly because these States enacted their own laws much before the central legislation. Again, several State Governments appoint favourably disposed information commissioners and the commissions themselves are poorly staffed. As the band of dedicated RTI activists grows, several have become targets. Approximately 250 activists have been killed in the past nine years. This group is keenly awaiting presidential assent for the much-needed Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2011. Taking the Right to Information campaign a step further, organisations like the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative are working with the Comptroller and Auditor General, on social audit of public authorities. Politicians who have been attacking the CAG for its zeal in unearthing scams like those over selling air waves to telecom companies and allocation of coal blocks, could face a formidable challenge if ordinary citizens armed with the RTI were to aid the auditor.