ARUNA ROY – Legal and extralegal means are being used to thwart the benefits of RTI

Finding a voice People across all sections of society have championed the RTI Act. Photos: Vijay Pandey

There are times when diverse dreams come together and are plaited to address the issues which concern us as human beings. The right to know is the key to all democratic rights we enjoy. One of the lessons that the social history of India has handed to us is that large-scale, sustained public action is possible only if we listen to and acknowledge the thoughts of people. The ordinary citizens on the street and the workers doing what we call “manual” work are the ones who think with pragmatism.

The RTI originated in this belief and the core of its understanding, which strengthened the struggle, came from a large group of people. It was therefore not surprising that the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), situated in central Rajasthan, should come to the conclusion in the early 1990s that without transparency of governance, none of their basic needs would be addressed.

There was a stark understanding that in this shrinking world where the village was no longer an insular unit, concerns spread across the country, vertically and horizontally. Panchayats did not share information, as people soon found out. However, the disease of secrecy was rampant everywhere. It often began with the powerful elite who controlled governance and who received their share of the spoils. The demand to see development records in the panchayats invited huge negative reactions from the chief minister downwards. The bureaucracy was also startled out of its complacency of non-accountability to anyone not directly senior in the line of command.

The RTI has been whittling away not merely the corrupt system but in so doing has been able to foster the much-needed right to question. In a society hampered by a feudal system, a caste hierarchy and the remnants of a colonial system, it requires immense courage from the ordinary Indian people to question those in authority.

Though acknowledged as sovereign in the opening lines of the preamble to the Constitution, the people have only remained sovereign in an idea encapsulated and preserved in rhetoric. If the sovereign was not allowed to question the representative sent by vote to look after collective concerns, or the “public or civil servant”, the term ceased to be of interest. The RTI addressed this deliberately fostered dilemma with its famous formulation — in the proviso of section 8 of the Act — when it said “information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person”.

The success of the RTI in beginning the process of asking for transparency in governance and establishing it as a democratic entitlement is now fairly established. The killing of over 40 RTI activists in the last 10 years, in a brazen and deliberate manner, proves that corruption or the arbitrary use of power cannot be sustained if questions have to be answered in the public domain. Questioning rattles the system as nothing else does. When the process of questioning then becomes a right, bureaucratic evasiveness is not possible. The violent means used by the powerful remain a tragedy and a question unaddressed by the system.

Foot soldiers Protests against dilution of the RTI Act brought people from all walks of life to the streets

Second generation laws for demanding accountability remain on the shelf. The blustering and corrupt system has found yet another way to stall the due process of law making. The laws to ensure accountability, through disclosure and transparency of the RTI, of illegal and incorrect governance remain to be passed. Despite the outcry for a Lokpal, the bill is still covered in the miasma of bureaucratic and political machinations to prevent it from becoming law. It looks as if the system is wary. The campaign, which promised so much in the sudden rise of public pressure to demand the Lokpal, has come down just as quickly.

The fickleness of public opinion has got diverted to issues where there is fury and sound but little substance. The growing process of consultative procedures has been replaced by tweets, social media one-liners and the exclusive group which has access to it. The opening up of the inner workings of the State has provoked so much fear that there are a series of efforts to forestall the mandatory need to be transparent and accountable.

The Whistleblowers Act, passed as an ordinance by the UPA, instead of being ratified by the nda government, has been further diluted by damaging amendments and remains to go through the parliamentary process once again. The Lokpal suffers from the fate of being lifted to the firmament as the only solution. The Grievance Redressal Act almost made it through the Parliament during the last regime and was promised by the then Opposition. But the present government dumped it with all the other second generation entitlements to stop corruption and the arbitrary use of power.

The government has also dragged its feet over Section 4 of the RTI Act mandating disclosure by all its ministries and departments. The section does not carry a penalty for non-compliance and the impunity of a corrupt and arbitrary system continues. The battles for disclosure continue unabated at all levels. The Management Information System (MIS) of the Ministry of Rural Development has kept the spirit of Section 4 by covering the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). However, the website still does not cover the entire list that needs to be put in the public domain under the Section. The government monitoring of the Section’s implementation is desultory at best. It has really hit back with proverbial and familiar tactics of evasion, delay and non-commission.

The most public and protested issue remains the appointment of information commissioners. The structure is weak and over-burdened. Where the commission has delivered good orders, progress has been made but the pendency is high. The registration of complaints in some of the commissions is so prolonged as to mock the institution and the remedy. The commission remains uncertain, not able to make up its mind whether it is bound by the RTI law or old loyalties to the system. These commissioners have remained propped up for years as civil servants. Despite all its shortcomings, the commission has performed somewhat better in relative terms. In a highly centralised system, the government sees these bodies as a nuisance. However, lip service by it is important to project an image of being open and democratic.

The difficulty in overthrowing an open system or in dismissing the RTI as irrelevant is the 8 million users of the RTI dotted over the entire country, underscoring the democratic fabric of this country and fighting every day for its survival.

From the beginning, the articulation for the RTI has had to deal with the specific and the general: the demand for grain in the Public Distribution System (PDS), the exposé on corruption and scams with the single RTI application to see records and so on. The RTI has been one of the biggest factors in democratic education, forever linking the vote with delivery, rights with freedom, the panchayat with the Lok Sabha. It continues to bind citizens in the warp and weft of everyday democracy. It is through this establishment of the links in the minds of the ordinary citizen that the RTI has and will continue to make its presence felt in the politics of everyday life of the individual and the nation.

The RTI was made real by a coming together of those most committed to democratic accountability — in civil society, in government, in politics, in academia, in judiciary — individually and collectively. Its importance for people from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, from Rajasthan to the Northeast, remain undisputed. Wherever we have gone there were RTI users and activists, claiming the law as an instrument and a solution.

The serious, persistent attempts to amend the law began in 2006, less than a year after its passing. There have been recurrent attempts every now and then. The last was when a good order from the information commission sought to bring the political parties under its purview. Though the amendment that proposed to keep the parties out of RTI was stopped by huge public pressure, the need for vigilance needs to be underscored. The struggle to keep the law from dilution and to spread its use remain important.

The shrinking space for freedom of expression, the attacks and killings of persons expressing unpopular opinions, and the attacks on the Internet, bode ill for the people of India. The users of the RTI must remind themselves that the law derives from Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. Any threat to that Article is a threat to the RTI. For all RTI users and activists, the chapter on fundamental rights continues to be the touchstone of all entitlements. It must become a conscious battle to fight any erosion of these rights.

Let us not forget that the RTI has taught every citizen who has used it to speak “truth to power, make truth powerful and power truthful”. In a corruption-prone India where fighting arbitrary power is a daily occurrence, the RTI will remain at the centre of democratic discourse and concern.