The right to demand information is a crucial feature of every responsive and democratic government. A large number of countries have made the ‘Right to Information’ an integral part of their constitution, whereas International bodies like World Bank, European Union, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), etc. have adopted this facet as a part of their governance policy. The ‘Right to Information’ owes its origin to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) whereby every individual is granted the freedom to express his/her opinion and is entitled to seek information on matters which he/she deems to be necessary. The Right to Information law helps to ensure democratic participation and promote accountability of the government to the citizens. It not only provides scope to tackle corruption, but also brings about efficient information exchange between the government and the public.
The Right to Information Act (RTI) in India was passed in the year 2005, “to provide for setting out the practical regime of Right to Information for citizens”. However,the formal recommendation of a legal freedom to demand information was made three decades ago when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of ‘State of UP versus Raj Narain’ that Right to Information is inherent in the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19 of the Constitution. The Act is enforceable in all states of India, except Jammu and Kashmir which has its own RTI Act of 2009.Under the Act, any citizen residing within the territory of India, can seek information from a public authority, which is required to respond to the request within 30 days.
During the colonial era, the Official Secrets Act of 1923 and various other special laws restricted the smooth disclosure of information to the civilian population. The RTI Act relaxes all such restrictive laws and ensures transparency between the government and the citizens. Prior to the RTI Act of 2005, the government had taken a step to promote lucidity in information dissemination by initiating the ‘Freedom of Information Act 2002’. This Act was criticized on several occasions, on grounds that it rejected information pleas citing the reason of ‘national security’. The credit for spearheading the RTI ACT goes to the “Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan” under the leadership of Aruna Roy which pressurized the government to disclose information regarding the purchase and transportation of materials. Several other organizations such as Consumer Education and Research Council, Ahmedabad, the Press Council of India and National Campaign on People’s Right to Information gave momentum to the efforts to formalize the movement. Finally, the National Advisory Council (NAC) led by Sonia Gandhi, addressed the papers submitted by Aruna Roy who was also a NAC member and amended the ‘Freedom of Information Act 2002’. The proposal on receiving approval was finally adopted by the Indian Parliament in the year 2005.
The RTI Act is applicable on all constitutional authorities – the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and any institutional body established by an Act of Parliament or the State Legislature. Although, private institutions do not directly fall within the purview of the Act, information can be demanded from the private bodies that are involved in rendering public services. However, the RTI Act is not applicable on all governmental authorities uniformly. The Act specifies that central intelligence and security agencies such as Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) etc. are not liable to disclose information that may hamper the safety and security of the country. Nevertheless, even these organizations have to give away information occasionally pertaining to corruption or human rights violation.
The RTI Act gives citizens the power to seek any information from the government, inspect any official document and demand samples of any governmental work. All public institutions that fall under the jurisdiction of the RTI Act are obligated to employ a Public Information Officer (PIO), who will receive pleas in writing, demanding information. It is mandatory for the PIO’s to provide a response to the requests within a duration of 30 days. However, information whose disclosure can hamper the security and integrity of the nation (such as deliberations in Cabinet Meeting, information regarding the defense of the country, or information received from foreign governments) can be exempted by the public authorities.
All over the world, Right to Information has created an opportunity for citizens to actively get involved in the democracy. However, in India, owing to a legacy of colonialism and feudalism, people are not completely successful in involving themselves with the activities of the government. Nevertheless, the RTI Act has generated a sense of caution and vigilance among the people, which in turn compels the politico-administrative system to be efficient in their working. Hopefully, the RTI Act in the future will be able to transform the societal culture of secrecy to a more liberal culture of openness thereby promoting a system of participative governance.
Picture Credits: AFP