A man asks to see various bank records to ascertain evidence that his wife, who works at the bank, is having an affair with another employee. A woman wants to see the service records of her child’s school: the boy is doing poorly, therefore the teachers must be at fault. A student of B. Com wishes to see his answer scripts because he is not satisfied with his marks. What these people have in common is that they have taken recourse to the Right to Information Act, 2005.
Whether the act was designed for cases such as those cited above is open to question. The act sanctions the right of individuals to seek information from public authorities about decisions that affect their lives, either directly or indirectly. It implies that public authorities have a duty to provide information, and that it is transparent in its operations. Therefore this right is a safeguard against corruption and the abuse of official power.
While the right to information was recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1947) and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), only 72 countries have so far put in place any enabling legislation. In this respect, the Indian act is considered exemplary though it too had a long gestation period. In 1975, the Supreme Court, in Uttar Pradesh vs Raj Narain, ruled that “the people of this country have a right to know every public act”, and this was reaffirmed in 1982 in S.P. Gupta & others vs President of India & others. Civil society activism for the cause of right to information began in 1996, and led to the passage of a Freedom of Information Act in 2002. But this act was never notified, and meanwhile, various states passed their own laws providing for a diverse quality of access to information. Some of these initiatives came from the state governments themselves; others from civil society groups such as the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information. The Congress mentioned the right to information in its campaign manifesto and the Common Minimum Programme in 2004, and a revised and better version of the 2002 Act, now titled the Right to Information Act, became law in 2005.
The provisions of the act give rise to several communication issues. The public needs to be made aware of its right to seek information from the government, and the administration on its part has to be reassured that the act is pro-government in enhancing accountability and bringing people closer to governmental processes. Successful implementation of the act can only redound to the prestige of the government of the day. State information commissioners and their Central counterparts have so far tended to interpret the act with latitude, and have ordered answer-scripts and file-notings to be made available. The corollary of this is that the government needs to simplify its procedures and make its records more accessible and user-friendly.
Above all, standards have to be fixed for the maintenance of records and minutes of recommendations and decisions recorded on files. In time, e-governance has to take root where the common man is informed about his powers, and the bureaucratic mindset has to shed its climate of secrecy and impunity, and the protection of the status quo.
Significantly, the most successful implementation of the act is in the states where civil society groups are the strongest and most active. But even in the states in which the government machine is well-oiled, where the state information commissions are working well and where civil society is assertive, difficulties have inevitably emerged. There is no closure of a case until compliance is confirmed, even when huge volumes of information are asked for. The act makes no distinction on the amount of information demanded, and a backlog of cases has developed, which may eventually equal the huge pendency of cases in the judicial courts. The act makes no distinction between the motive of the petitioner and mens rea, which is indicative of criminal intent, and there could accordingly be a vested and malign interest in seeking information.
In the developed world (Sweden pioneered the right to information in 1766), the laws are used to throw light on systems of governance, discretionary powers, public money spent or not spent on public works and the environment. But in India, most of the cases are personal cases, dealing with seniority, promotions, rules, land issues, election-related decisions, municipal administration and the status of police cases. There is already much evidence of personal vendetta, and frivolous and vexatious enquiries, all of which take time to respond. The government, whose apathy and poor output are rightly open to criticism, is further distracted by these requests for information and the time taken to copy and compile the sometimes tens of thousands of sheets required for the answer, quite apart from the costs involved.
The right to information has the potential to transform the financial situation in India. Public property is leased by the State in prime urban centres all over India, and when the leases expire, the tenants continue in illegal and often free occupation, including the plutocrats in the most sought-after areas of cities like Mumbai. Removing this abuse can transform the finances of several states. The Indian Railways and the military also own huge acreages of unproductive property all over India.
The right to information can also check the abuse of the prison system. It is a unique and deplorable feature of this country that rich and influential persons invariably develop a sharp pain in the chest when they go to prison and have to be admitted instead to the comforts of a hospital. A public-spirited citizen should ask to examine their medical records. For decades, promotions in the government have been based on reputation and perception rather than record and performance. The confidential reports of nearly all the government officers are years out of date, and are hastily and retrospectively written up for presentation to promotion panels. This practice might hopefully be brought to an end through public scrutiny.
Not unnaturally, every person or group wants others, but not himself, to be transparent. The Supreme Court, which ought to be the most transparent of our institutions, wants to be exempted. The president declines to confirm the number of his cars with red beacons. Where does all the money go that is contributed by the public to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund' The fund wants to be considered a private trust that is exempt from scrutiny. The chief information commissioner should have no truck with these kinds of specious argument.
In the West, the use of the powers under right to information, usually by investigative journalists like Seymour Hersh or Bob Woodward, results in media revelations about governmental activities. There the normal channels work well enough for the citizen to obtain services from the government and there are several avenues of redress if they do not. In India, the press carries accounts of cases such as those mentioned in the first paragraph. But away from media disclosure, the act has already proved its worth, according to village-level NGOs, in expediting the issue of ration cards, driving licences, voters cards and electricity connections. If each person is to be convinced that he exercises sovereignty in his own right, the act, with all its current imperfections, will be another step in making this possible.