15 years have passed since the Historic Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted. How was the journey of this Act for the people of India during this period? Did it bring the requisite ‘Transperancy & Accountability’ as guaranteed by the said Act? Right to Information Act is perhaps the most successful law in India. Some Jurists call it ‘The Best & The Most Effective Law’ enacted by independent India. Some also call it the ‘Backbone’ of a true Democracy.
The RTI Act, 2005:
RTI is the law that gives an ordinary citizen the right to ask questions & seek information/disclosure from the Government, Administration & the Public Offices. It mandates the government to provide a mechanism for timely response to the citizen who seeks information.
The success of the RTI Act can be borne out from the fact that nearly 60 lakhs applications are filed every year.
Over 3.02 crore RTI applications were filed with central and state governments since the inception of the transparency law 15 years ago. The RTI Act is being used by the citizens as well the media. The RTI Act, 2005 mandates to provide the sought information & Disclosure of the organisation, function, finance and structure of Public Authorities.The Public Authorities include the Ministries, public sector undertakings and regulators.It also includes all entities & NGOs owned, controlled or substantially financed by the government funds.
The genesis of RTI law started in 1986 through the judgement of the Apex Court in Mr Kulwal vs. Jaipur Municipal Corporation. During this case, the apex court had stressed that the freedom of speech and expression provided under Article 19 of the Constitution mandates the Right to Information.The Indian Parliament realised the importance of the right to information and enacted the Right to Information Act, 2005.
Importance of RTI Act:
The RTI Act, 2005 has played a very significant role in strengthening the democractic values by providing transperancy. It is only due to this enactment that it became obligatory for the government officials to change their attitudes/mindsets from secrecy to transperancy.It not only empowers the Information Commission to direct government offices to provide information in accordance with the provisions of the Act but to impose penalties on erring officials who do not provide necessary information and disclosure. This Act has made the system accountable to the common man. The timely access to information has exposed many financial irregularities and scams which have led to political turmoil in the country. RTI has made it possible for the public to have access to the government’s records so that they can scrutinize and assess the effectiveness of the government thereby enforcing better accountablity towards the people.
RTI did not meet success in India as expected due to illiteracy and unawareness. Some individuals are often misusing the provisions causing harassment of the authorities. People ask useless, baseless information with the motive of publicity stunts and blackmailing public authorities. The stringent procedures and inordinate delays on the appellate tiers have also dissuaded people from resorting to the same.
It is the foremost bounden duty of the government to strengthen the RTI Act.
The public authorities must digitize their records so that there is little need for the citizens to request for information under the RTI. In order to safeguard democracy, the citizens must use the RTI Act regularly for the benefit of the people at large.
Apathy of Government:
With the amendment of RTI in 2019, the government has sought control over the RTI authorities which goes against the spirit of RTI. Moreover, the government is not accepting the orders of the State Information Commissioners or the Central Information Commissioner and are filing writ petitions in the High Courts and the Supreme Court. The government itself has enacted the RTI law but is regularly shying away from it, avoiding & circumventing the orders of CIC for providing information & disclosure. It is really disturbing that more than 1500 writs are pending against orders of CIC in the High Courts alone. This speaks volumes of the intent of the government towards providing information and disclosure under the RTI Act.
Weaknesses of RTI:
The process of manual application and hearing is unnecessary and avoidable in times of the IT world. Digital applications and providing paperless information should become the order of the day.
The biggest impediment is that the Information authorities designated by the authorities/ department hesitate to provide information as demanded by the applicants. The weakest limb of RTI is the first appellate authority who are not interested to order for providing information to the appellants as they do not know & understand the legal position nor follow the binding ” Precedents” of the Higher Courts.
The huge pendencies in summary proceedings under RTI are a big cause of worry. The ‘2019: State Transparency Report – Journey So Far and Challenges Ahead’ report by Transparency International India (TII), released on Friday the eve of 15th anniversary of implementation of the Right To Information Act 2005, also says 21.32 lakh appeals were filed with state and central information commissions since 2005 after the applicants did not get the required information. It is pathetic that more than 50000 appeals are pending in the court of State Information Commissioner in UP alone and it takes an average of 5 or more years for its decision. Is it not mockery of RTI law that the applicant has to wait for 8-10 years for getting the desired information? Perhaps the very purpose of obtaining such information gets defeated with the passage of time and the whole exercise becomed infructuous. The cost incurred & the inordinate time delay have certainly made the RTI Act ineffective tool.
One of the areas of concern is the apparent reluctance of Information Commissioners in imposing penalty on erring Public Information Officers (PIOs) who refuse information under one pretext or another. The Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs) can impose penalty of Rs 250 per day to maximum Rs 25,000 under Section 20(1) of RTI Act.
“Like every other democracy of world, legislation, though, is only half the battle. Without full implementation, laws have little chance of success. Problem lies in doublespeak of promises and actions of the successive ruling combinations since 2005,” TII Chairman S R Wadhwa wrote in the report.
He said parties claim support to transparency law but when in power, ruling combinations “neither did anything to make RTI Act more powerful nor are they doing something to ensure free flow of information so that citizens are not forced to run from pillar to post and wait for years for disposal of their RTI appeals, which ultimately defeats the very purpose of idea of transparency and access to information”.
RTI Act was enacted to ensure social justice & transparency. It alone has made government accountable for its actions. It has numerous limitations and drawbacks particularly in the sphere of timely disposal of appeals and digitalization of all government records. It is obligatory that the government strengthens the RTI Act to enable it to play a more significant role in strengthening the Indian democracy for the benefit of its citizens at large.