“Knowledge is power. Information is power,” said Robin Morgan, American poet, author and political theorist, “The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility”. India prides itself in being the largest democracy in the world. However, the Indian government system has always been shrouded in secrecy and red-tape. Despite being the ruler in a democracy, the citizen of Indian was powerless having no access to government information which was protected by the pre-colonial ‘Official Secret Act’ and many other such laws. It was a criminal act if any unauthorized person were to disclose or access any information pertaining to the government. However, all that changed after the promulgation of the Right to Information Act 2005.
The RTI Act is an Act of Parliament passed on 15 June 2005 and made applicable all over India on 12 October 2005. The Act mandates all ‘public authorities’ to provide information to the citizens of India by following a simple procedure. Each public authority must appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO) entrusted with the responsibility of providing information to the public. Any citizen of India can inspect work, documents, reports held by Public Authorities or even information relating to private authorities under the control of the Public Authorities by paying a nominal fee of just Rs 10. The information has to be provided in a time bound manner and failure to provide information or providing incorrect information may lead to imposition of penalty on the Public Information Officer (PIO). In order to ensure compliance, the institution of Appellate Authority and Information Commissioner (IC) has been created for filing appeals against the decisions of the PIO. Thus the RTI Act empowers the citizens, promotes transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contains corruption, and makes Indian democracy work for the people in real terms.
The RTI Act has transformed the functioning of the government in the 15 years of its implementation. It has empowered the citizens who can get any information from any government department by following a simple procedure and paying just a nominal fee. The stringent penalties have ensured that the government officers supply the right information to the public within the time frame. The fear of RTI has made the government officials more responsible and reduced arbitrariness in decision making. RTI has also played important role in checking corrupt practices in government due to increased transparency and accountability.
However, the RTI Act also suffers from many limitations in its present form. While the RTI Act is useful for getting information, it does not have any provision for the redressal of citizens’ grievances, if a wrong action has been taken by the official concerned. There has been a rise of the so called RTI activists who use RTI to seek a large number of unnecessary information to harass and even blackmail the officers. Since the government offices are usually understaffed, the diversion of resources to provide information further reduces their efficiency. The RTI Act has created fear in the mind of even honest officers for taking difficult decisions as they can be harassed and blackmailed by RTI activists by seeking huge information from their offices and then sensationalizing some decisions to defame them. It is due to the RTI, that senior officers often find it difficult to take administrative action against their inefficient and corrupt juniors despite having information about their misconduct, in case they don’t have any verifiable evidence against the officer. Thus RTI Act has demoralized honest officers who have stopped taking tough decisions. It is, therefore, not a surprise that most public servants including politicians and civil servants resent the RTI Act, which has reduced their own powers and made them far more accountable to people.
The controversies around RTI reached their peak when the Parliament passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in August 2019. The amendments give the union government power to fix the tenure, salaries, and terms & conditions of service of the Information Commissioners (ICs), including the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and the State Information Commissioners (SICs). Subsequently, the Central government used this power to reduce the term of the Information Commissioners at the Central as well as state levels from five years to three years. The CIC is now equated with a cabinet secretary while all ICs shall be equal to Secretary, as against their earlier status was equal to that of the Election Commission.
The Union Government has justified the amendment claiming that the functions of the Election Commission of India (ECI) are very different from those of the Central and State Information Commissions, and therefore the same needs to be “rationalized.” However, the RTI activists and members of the opposition parties fear that this amendment poses an existential threat to the RTI Act. Two former CICs have argued that the bill may “kill” the RTI Act itself. M Sridhar Acharyulu, former Central Information Commissioner, categorically said, “The proposed amendments to RTI Act which reportedly seek to downgrade the status of the chief information commissioner and information commissioners, reduce the autonomy of this constitutional institution and are, consequently, an assault on the right to information and democracy.” The RTI amendment appears to weaken the position of Information Commissioners. It will now be much easy to remove them, in case Government is not happy with them. Moreover, their lower status now would attract less talented people.
While RTI Act has undoubtedly provided many benefits to the people of India, its shortcoming also can’t be ignored. We now have the experience of over fifteen years of the implementation of RTI Act and using this experience, we need to rationalize the Act. Provisions can be made in the Act so that the information sought pertains to the person asking the information. If information is asked in public interest, the reasons must be disclosed. There has to be strict penalty for frivolous RTI application just like costs imposed by the courts on frivolous litigations. Moreover, the realistic cost of providing information must be recovered from the applicant. Information may also be provided with the caveat that it can’t be used for commercial or publicity purposes.
Hon'ble Supreme Court once stated, “The free flow of information about affairs of Government paves way for debate in public policy and fosters accountability in Government. It creates a condition for ‘open governance’ which is the foundation of democracy.” The RTI Act no doubt continues to be relevant for a truly democratic India. However, we must plug the loopholes in the law to make the Act more useful and effective for the citizens and make the public servants more accountable to the people of India.
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