Participation, transparency, legitimacy and responsiveness form the pillars of good governance. The concept of good governance was applied in India through the passing of Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment.
Right to Information Act, 2005 forms a basic requisite of good governance and the Act has played and is still playing a major role in bringing good governance by making our system transparent and accountable.
RTI act has ushered in transparency:
- RTI Act has lent voice to the aspirations of ordinary citizens in issues of governance. It gave the common people a defining power to shape the government schemes and policies. It empowered the people to question, audit, review, examine, and assess government acts and decisions to ensure that these are consistent with the principles of public interests, good governance and justice.
- Right to Information is the most effective instrument to check corruption where the citizen has the right to take the initiative to seek information from the state and thereby promotes openness, transparency and accountability in administration by making the government more open to public scrutiny. It also empowered the people to seek definite and direct answer from the officials of their works or lack of it thus facilitating and encouraging the participation of common people in the process of good governance. RTI Act democratized the information and decentralized the power. Power no more remains confined to select few, rather it was made available equally to all the citizens.
- People have showed increased interest in the affairs of government and sought information regarding various issues affecting their lives and well-being. RTI Act empowered the people to seek definite and direct answer from the officials of their works or lack of it. RTI applications have annually increased by 8 to 10 times. A 2009 study estimates that in the Act’s first three years alone, close to two million RTI requests were filed in different parts of the country. Thus, there is massive use of the right to know. Of the millions of applications for information, less than 5 per cent have been denied information under various exemption categories. So, accountability has invariably led to efficiency and a sense of responsibility among government officials.
- The Right to Information act is intended to promote accountability and transparency in government by making the process of government decision making more open. Though some departments of the Union government are exempted from this Act but the information can be sought if it is concerned with violation of human rights. Even the information from the private authority can be sought only through the controlling authority and controlling authority will send the notice to the institution concerned under section 11 of the Act.
- The larger use of RTI has been seen in areas of women empowerment, youth development, democratic rights, rights and entitlements of the underprivileged, abuse of executive discretion and strengthening of participative and good governance.
Success stories of RTI
- For many, particularly India’s poor and disadvantaged, the simple act of filing an RTI application is empowering, and often leads to tangible results. In 2010, K.S. Sagaria, a resident of Kushmal village in rural Orissa, filed an RTI application seeking information on the number of ponds constructed in his village under the government’s national wage employment scheme. The information he received was revealing: the ponds had never been constructed even though money had been allocated and spent. Following complaints from villagers, the local administration was forced to take action and suspend the officials involved in the pond scam.
- In the model district of Mochha, Chhattisgarh, people are using RTI to secure employment, scholarships and pensions for the elderly. They also pressured government doctors and school teachers to show up at work regularly. Villagers in Madhubani district, Bihar used RTI to expose a solar-light scam, leading to charges against 200 corrupt officials.
- In 2007, data obtained under RTI inspired citizens to question elected representatives to stop a scam worth over Rs. 6,000 crores in the Crawford Market redevelopment issues in Mumbai.
Challenges with respect to RTI
- Attacks on Activists : There have been quite a few cases where people were killed. Unless the whistle blower protection act is implemented by notifying the rules, things will not change on ground. There has to be a concerted effort by both central & state governments to prevent such attacks.
- Frivolous RTI have been used by politicians to settle score and waste time.
- Implementation of Section 4: The people who drafted the RTI act were very pragmatic in including Section 4 in the RTI act. The idea was that proactive disclosure of the most important information by government machinery would reduce the need for citizens to separately seek information. Most studies confirm that more than 50% of the applications filed under the RTI act ask for information that should have been disclosed under Section 4. And more than 60% of the government offices do not have any kind of physical disclosures. Even in places, where the disclosure is made, the information is outdated. Like it is emphasized by a sub-committee of Information Commissioners, section 4 implementation is going to be a crucial piece in the success of the RTI act.
- Working of the Information Commissions: The Information Commissions were envisioned as the watch dogs in the implementation of the RTI act. 13 years later, the commissions seem to be going the way of the Judiciary in terms of pendency. In more than 90% of the cases analyzed by the RaaG study, penalty was not imposed where it was supposed to have been imposed. Unless the commissions buckle up and start working effectively, they might become the Achilles heel in the implementation of the act. At the same time, the government should make the process of selection of Information Commissioners more transparent. Close to 60% of all commissioners in the country are retired civil servants.
Measures needed to strengthen RTI:
- Reduce pendency: To begin with, the government could take steps to reduce pending appeals. In June 2019, about 31,000 appeals were pending, over 9,000 of those pending for over a year. Currently, four out of the ten positions of information commissioners are vacant.
- Prune the exemption list: According to an RTI ratings report by the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy, India’s rank slipped from second position in 2011 to eighth in 2018. In its current form, Section 8 of the RTI Act lists ten exemptions, ranging from any information that may hurt national security, impede the process of ongoing investigations to cabinet papers and deliberations of the council of ministers. These must be reduced.
- Protect whistle-blowers: According to a tracker of assaults on RTI activists set up by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a Delhi-based international non-profit, 84 RTI activists have been murdered since 2005 for seeking information on illegal construction, alleged scams in social welfare schemes, and corruption in panchayats. While seven activists have committed suicide, more than 350 have either faced assault or harassment. Starting with timely and effective investigation, India needs to put in place long-term measures to prevent these assaults
- CIC as a constitutional body: The currently statutory body must be made a constitutional body to uphold its sanctity.
- Political parties under RTI: All political parties claim to serve the public but are unanimous in their reluctance to share information with citizens. They must be put under ambit of RTI.
- The RTI has unshackled millions of users who will continue to use this democratic right creatively and to dismantle exclusive power.
- Independent structures set up to regulate and monitor the government are vital to a democratic state committed to deliver justice and constitutional guarantees.
- The separation of powers is a concept which underscores this independence and is vital to our democratic checks and balances.
- So when power is centralised, the freedom of expression is threatened which can lead to the decline of democracy.
- The need of the hour is the Government should take into account the concerns of the experts and should arrive at an amicable solution, which ensures sufficient independence to the Commission.
RTI Act has transparency, accountability and participation as its mandate and is considered equally important legal document after the Constitution. There is a necessity to undertake the measures to strengthen this powerful tool that can deliver significant social benefits.