Ten years of implementation of the Right to Information Act has spawned a new breed of activism and citizenship

The Right to Information (RTI) Act has completed 10 years of implementation. According to a conservative estimate based on the Information Commission’s annual reports, there are at least 50 lakh RTI applications filed in India every year. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative used the data to estimate that just under 1 per cent of the electorate uses the RTI every year. Over the last decade, at least 2 per cent of the Indian population has used the law. For a law that requires proactive initiative, those are extraordinarily high numbers.

Despite all our justified complaining about poor implementation, bureaucratic resistance, interference, absence of political and administrative support, threats against users, and attempts at dilution, people have fiercely owned the law like no other. They have defended it against every attack and put it to sustained use.

Popularity of RTI

Many people have tried to understand why the RTI has become so popular in India. Why does use of the law continue to spread despite the odds stacked against the users and applicants? What converts individuals into users and users into activists? In the unequal battle of trying to hold power to account, perhaps it is the real empowerment and sense of hope that the RTI offers to every citizen.

People need to hope. About two decades ago, writer Arundhati Roy made a passing comment on why peddlers of salvation, despite their unattainable promises, attract so many people. They actually peddle hope. We want to be reassured that we can do something to set things right. Bollywood films with happy endings, where the single and determined fighter takes on all that is evil, are not only three-hour escapades but indicators of our need to hope. The human desire for dignity, equality, public ethics, and the capacity to enforce these even to some extent needs an outlet. RTI, in many ways, offers that measure of hope.

In the world of democratic politics, people face the bleak scenario of political, economic and social promises being twisted to serve personal profit. Occasionally an election re-infuses great hope. But political leadership apart, the long march of attempting to make constitutional promises of equality and liberty is part of the daily survival of millions of Indians. People struggle every day to establish some reason in dealings in public life with assertions of citizenship, entitlements, and ethics. Discussions and deliberations within such groups and collectives gave birth to the process and principles of the RTI movement. The genesis of the RTI addressed issues of constitutional rights: empowering individuals and collectives to demand answers from a corrupt government.

In 1996, a lawyer, who casually dropped in to talk at the first large RTI dharna in Beawar in central Rajasthan, said, “This is a great cause and issue, but let’s forget about ever getting the law. No corrupt system is going to expose its rotten core.” Let us imagine for a moment that he was proved right, that India had not passed a strong RTI law a decade ago. How different would things be?

The RTI is a law that has spawned a new breed of activism and citizenship. RTI enthusiasts do not only file RTI applications; they also spend countless hours debating sections, cases, applications, and answers. These are ordinary people who have suddenly become obsessed and even possessive about their particular connection to this law. They are RTI’s foot soldiers and, at the same time, its generals, who have used the law to shake India’s officialdom by its roots.

Questioning authority

A decade gives us an opportunity to see what RTI is doing to the much larger processes of change. These are matters not of law, but of culture, of equations of power, and of unquestioned norms. It is very rare that one gets an opportunity to not just ask a question but change the basis of questioning. Without specifically attempting to change relationships in society, the RTI has begun to do just that. Without debating the hierarchies of who can ask questions and who must provide answers, the Act has begun to encourage a culture of asking questions. We are far from being an open society, but the RTI is opening our minds to what such a society might be.

It’s not often that one can see the impact of a law in terms of its social and philosophical implications. The RTI is a process of dismantling illegitimate concentrations of power. We can expose the lies and the cheating, not merely in monetary terms, but unravel the promotion of conflict and exploitation of the poor.

The RTI is messy, untidy, incomplete, and, of course, imperfect. But that is its strength: it acknowledges contention and builds its own theory of relativity. There are many perspectives on each issue. The RTI provides a platform for each view to engage with the other on the basis of a shared logic. It can help us escape from policy paralysis, and build a more informed, equitable and robust decision-making process.

A bureaucrat friend, not particularly enamoured by the RTI, reluctantly conceded to us, “There is one thing I must acknowledge — when any government servant picks up a pen to write on a file, he or she has RTI on their mind. This is one of the best forms of deterrence against wrongdoing we can have.” That was an acknowledgment of incredible universal impact covering everyone at all times. If we want to usher in a paradigm of transparency, it is clear that bureaucrats must have the friendly ghost of the RTI implanted in their psyche. And that is how cultural change begins. As RTI users, we often say that the RTI helps change the mindsets of those asking the questions as well, because the same standards must obviously apply. More importantly, it is very likely that anyone posing a challenge will invite one to themselves — and just a willingness to be prepared for such a situation means that an ethos of questioning is taking birth.

It is widely acknowledged that we are becoming a consumer-oriented, competitive society. In fact our capitalist framework seems to encourage it. Should we not also acknowledge other forces in society that are encouraging us to demand answers of the powerful, use truth as a basis of demand for change, and provide tools that strengthen the weak and make the strong accountable?

Let’s imagine for a moment that India had not passed the RTI a decade ago. What would it be like today? Not just a less accountable, more corrupt, opaque government, but also a far more discouraging and despairing country. Despite what the sceptic said in Beawar 20 years ago, India has passed a strong RTI law. The people of Beawar held a meeting to celebrate ten years of the RTI, and said they had not dreamt how far this would go in 20 years. Subsequently, the Municipal Corporation of Beawar passed a unanimous resolution to build a memorial at the spot at Chang Gate where the 40-day dharna took place in 1996, launching the RTI movement in India. Its foundation stone was laid on October 13 this year. To have a city celebrate a law and identify itself with it is a sign of strong and sustained citizen activism. To have that sense of ownership spread across the country should give the Indian citizen some hope of what the next ten years might bring.

(Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are social activists and members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.)