Friday, October 15, 2010

Aar Tee Aai and the Aam Aadmi

On 12th October 2010, India celebrated five years of functioning of RTI Act, 2005. How this act came into being? Did it achieve expected results? Do we have enough protections for RTI activists? This article attempts to answer these questions.

Five long years have passed since our Government enacted the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005 to consummate its dream to promote transparency and accountability in governance. This journey of five years has not been full of encouragement but at the same time was able to merit attraction. So the general feeling is mixed. A formulation of proper governmental policy and effective implementation, tightening security of the applicants are the priorities of the day.

Brief Background:

RTI movement started in India since 1975. In the State of U.P. Vs Raj Narain, SC, 1975, Supreme Court stated that “Right to Information” is embedded within the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed under Art  19 of our Constitution. In the 1990s, the RTI movement gained currency with various attempts. To name a few, Consumer Education and Research Council (CERC, Ahmedabad) in 1993, Press Council of India in 1996 came up with model laws. Government was reluctant to respond to these proposals.

All these endeavours, coupled with successful campaign of Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sansthan (MKSS, founded in 1990 with the efforts of Aruna Roy) to unearth corruptions in the village wage system catapulted success to RTI. National Campaign on People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formed in 1996 to act as a pressure group to legislate RTI.

Shourie Committee, under the chairmanship of H.D Shourie was constituted in 1997 and the committee also submitted its report in 1997 itself. Due to political instability in those days and concurrent governmental abeyance didn’t bring much out of it. “National Freedom of Information Bill, 2000” was passed in the parliament in 2002 in the form of “Freedom of Information Act, 2002” (FOI Act). But this act attracted diatribe from many groups, civil societies for its excessive exemptions and never came into force.

In National Common Minimum Programme mooted by the UPA-I government in 2004, the provision of “progressive, participatory and meaningful” RTI was assured. National Advisory Council (NAC), in consultation with NCPRI and other civil societies, amended the FOI Act in the form of “Right to Information Bill, 2004”. After a long and useful deliberation, RTI Act, 2005 was passed in both the Houses and finally came into force on 12th October, 2005.

It is also to be remembered that some State governments (Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Karnataka (2000), Delhi (2001), Maharashtra (2002), Madhya Pradesh (2003), Assam (2002) and Jammu and Kashmir (2004)) enacted RTI Acts of their own variants. So, this was, in a way, culmination of long-standing demand of the common populace of India for a centrally-enacted legislation.

RTI Regime:

As per the section 12(3) of RTI Act, Central Government shall appoint a “Central Information Commissioner” (CIC) and “Information Commissioner” (IC). CIC is to work “autonomously” with assistance of ICs appointed by a collegium consisting of Prime Minister, Leader of the opposition and a Union Minister nominated by the Prime Minister.  Similarly “State Chief Information Commissioner” and "State Information Commissioner" are to be appointed under section 15(3). Every “Public Authority” (PA) has to appoint “Public Information Officer” (PIO) whom the applicant needs to submit a request for “Information”.  Additionally PA needs to designate “Assistant Public Information Officers” (APIO) who are also eligible to receive RTI requests and can forward the request to the concerned PIO.

Section 7 (3) provides for maximum time limit to receive the information as 30 days of the receipt of the request. If the information sought concerns “the life or liberty of a person”, then it has to be provided within 48 hours.

As per the sections 4(1) (b), 6(1) and 5(3), the PA is directed to provide certain information proactively. The Act explicitly mentions the definitions of “records” and also the right to “access” which might be questioned. Section 8 mentions some categories of information which are exempted from disclosure for mainly national interests.

Working of RTI so far:

13% of rural population and 33% of urban population are aware of RTI Act.  Only 12% of women and 26% of men are aware of it. 49% of the RTI applicant reported poor assistance from the PIO during filing of RTI request. 75% of the applicants are dissatisfied with the quality of information provided.  This is, in a nutshell, where the RTI stands (2009 June data).

Obviously, the implementation of RTI Act has not been meticulously made.  Considering the literacy rate around 65 percent (2001 census), this is abysmally low. Government probably lacked almost in every aspects of its implementation.  PIOs are not effectively trained and largely discharge their duties keeping “Officers Secrets Act, 1923” in mind. There is also lack of infrastructure, ill-functioning of government machinery, lack of training and quality, poor record management, among others. Amorphous attitude of the government in campaigning the benefits of the RTI, maimed security arrangements for the RTI activists exacerbated the fragility of RTI.

But, India also witnessed some positive results. For example, “Catalyst Trust”, an NGO campaigning for educational rights revealed that Local Bodies in Tamil Nadu are not utilizing the elementary education tax corpus through RTI petition. Huge corruption in Public Distribution System (PDS) was unearthed through an RTI application by the villagers of Nai Basti in Uttar Pradesh. “Commonwealth Human Rights Initiatives” was also successful in curbing the corruption in PDS in Gujrat using RTI. Similar issues of medical procurement, pension system, and environmental degradation achieved some isolated success. Studying all these cases, one can manifestly conclude that, collective attempts through Civil Societies achieved results notwithstanding the individual attempts.

Patriots who had laid their lives:

In last 2 years 12 RTI activists were killed; 8 of them were killed in 2010 alone. India needs to remember these selfless activists who gave up their valuable lives in order to uphold our “vibrant” democracy. We need strengthen our outcry for the formulation of a comprehensive Whistleblower Act to protect these patriots from the insidious pogroms. Lot of deliberations among the RTI Activists, Civil Societies, Media Houses and Government are required before finalizing the draft of Whistleblower Act which is expected to be passed in the winter session. Here are some great martyrs who selflessly gave up their lives:

Satyendra Kumar Dubey: A National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) engineer was killed in 2004 in Goya after sending a letter to Atal Bihari Vajpayee detailing the corruptions in road constructions. He had requested to conceal his identity, however, somehow his identity was revealed.

Manjunath Shanmugham : An IIM graduate and Sales Manager of Indian Oil Corporation, was killed in 2005 in Maharashtra, while unearthing the corruption in Petroleum industry.

Lalit Kumar Mehta: 36-year-old, Jharkhand-based prominent RTI activist was murdered for exposing the corruption in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in May 2008. He was an active member of the Right to Food Campaign and Gram Swaraj Abhiyan.

Satish Shetty : 39-year-old RTI activist was brutally murdered in January 2010 for divulging land scams in and around Talegaon, Lonavala and Pimpri-Chinchwad and black marketing.

Vishram Laxman Dodiya : 50-year-old RTI activist, shopkeeper, based on Surat, was brutally murdered in February 2010 for his stubbornness not to withdraw RTI application seeking information on illegal electricity connection by a private farm despite repeated intimidations.

Shashidhar Mishra: He worked tirelessly in exposing the wide-spread corruption in Block and Panchayat levels using RTI. He was murdered in Bihar in February 2010.

Arun Sawant : Thane-based RTI activist was shot dead in February 2010 while going to file an RTI application in connection with the Badlapur Municipal Corporation (BMC).

Sola Ranga Rao : A 30-year-old activist of Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh, was murdered in April 2010. He filed many RTI applications seeking information in order to bring out the irregularities on funds granted for village drainage system.

Venkatesh : A 48-year-old resident of Vijaynagar District of Karnataka, was murdered in mysterious circumstance in April 2010. He was instrumental in saving a property of worth 35 crore invoking RTI Act.

Vitthal Gite: A 39-year-old farmer and mill-owner exposed severe corruption in functioning in several schools in Maharashtra. He was beaten, seriously injured and then passed away few days later in April 2010.

Dattatraya Patil: He was killed in May 2010, for bringing out fake registrations of handloom societies through the RTI Act.

Amit Jethwa: A RTI activist was shot dead for filing a Public Interest Litigation against illegal mining in Gir Forest (Junagarh, Gujrat) in July 2010.

In most cases, Police department achieved miniscule results. Murderers are still unidentified, hinting lackadaisical approach. Still there are many enlightened activists who are working tirelessly notwithstanding life threats, political browbeats and ineffectual protectors. Aruna Roy, Anna Hazare, Krishnaraja Rao are few to mention.

Whistleblower’s Act?

All these atrocities, indiscriminate murders probably changed the nonchalant attitude of our Government and they in fact tabled Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosure Bill, 2010, on 26th August 2010. This has aimed for “eliminating corruption in the Government and the public sector undertakings” and to provide adequate protections to the whistleblowers. This Act also talked about mechanisms to encourage the people to disclose corruptions or “willful misuse of power or willful misuse of discretion by public servants or commission of a criminal offence”. Central Vigilance Commission will be authorized through this law to punish the public servant/concerned officer who will reveal the identity of whistleblowers. This 
is expected to be passed in the winter session.

What India needs?

India needs a countrywide RTI movement to weed out corruption, to consummate oaths of democracy, to restore rule of law, to destroy unlawful bonhomie between governmental apparatus and politics and moreover protection to the activists at any cost.Proper implementation of RTI, legislation for enviable protection to the valiant activists and mass awareness can fructify such apparently lofty ideals. Media of all forms, various Civil Societies are no doubt working hard in this regard but a political movement is also necessary to give it a relevant impetus.

This could be in line with the “Green Parties” in various countries who politicized their movements by treading traditional political routes to safeguard environmental interests.  This is required for India’s national interest and also for sustainable inclusive growth.

Aviijit Maity is passionate about India and desires to contribute to its growth. He 'softwares' to earn his living in the city of joy and dilapidated palaces. Criticize him at

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