RTI: Himachal among early starters


By: Dr Amit Sharma

Since the end of imperial age, human beings all around the world have increasingly enjoyed certain basic rights, but as democracies developed, a need was felt for a legislation to bring more transparency into the democratic process. It was in accordance with this need that President Lyndon B Johnson of the United States first enacted a law regarding freedom of information in 1969. Consistent with this development, similar laws were enacted in various countries all around the world, which led to a demand among the Indian intelligentsia as well for a similar law. Owing to this demand, the Indian Parliament passed the Right to Information Act on 15 June, 2005, which came into full force on 13 October, 2005. This Act finally replaced the draconian and obsolete ‘Official Secrets Act of 1923’. The Act is considered a direct extension of Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.

In Himachal too, the winds of change have started blowing, and in a recent survey conducted by Public Cause Research Foundation, the state has been placed seventh among 22 states that were part of the study. The study revealed that the Himachal Pradesh government spent around Rs 51 lakh on providing information under RTI Act in one year. As per the study, the state commission handled 88.6% cases within the stipulated time.

The Act is applicable to all constitutional entities including executive, legislative and judicial institutions. It is also applicable to all bodies financed, established or constituted by government of India or the state governments. All these institutions were made liable to appoint a public information officer or PIO. Any citizen of India can request any information from the PIO of any institution; the citizen is also entitled to take copies of the information in any form i.e. a hard copy or by electronic methods. He can also inspect documents, works and records. The PIO is duty-bound to make information available within 30 days of receipt of request, failing which it is deemed as refusal to provide information.

I firmly believe the Right to Information is one of the most significant developments in the process of democracy that has taken place in the recent times. The records are not for the government to sit over or turn them into files which gather dust in record rooms. They, in fact, are indelible proof of the working of our governing officials. The right to information not only brings about transparency and accountability in the official proceedings, but also acts as a suitable check for corruption, bringing about fairness in the system. Any citizen in a modern functioning democracy has the right and duty of being aware about the government procedures, and brings to notice inequities wherever found. As has been shown by unearthing of various corruption cases in a short span of time, the Act has been effective in India. This would go a long way in acting as a deterrent for corruption in a country like ours, which has been rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, even behind certain African nations.

But on the flip side, one may argue about misuse of the Act by unscrupulous elements. Critics have also argued compromising of information regarding national security and other classified information with the government. Also, there is a fear of increasing workload on the already overworked bureaucracy of India. The judiciary sometimes is also averse to the Act, stating a valid argument that it can falsely malign the name of any working or retired judge and, on the whole, will dilute the respect for our highly esteemed judiciary.

All of the above are fair arguments but I think they have been suitably laid to rest firstly by keeping national security documents and the Prime Minister’s Office out of the Act’s ambit. The argument of increasing workload on the officials is hardly valid in modern times with so many information technology solutions at our disposal. The argument is further defeated by continuing modernization and computerization of official records by the government. On the whole, if we have to increase the workforce for the Act to function, it is too small a price to pay to bring transparency into the system. On the issue of misuse of the Act in general and against judiciary in particular, a further legislation for punitive action against such elements can dissuade the misuse up to a large extent. Lately, RTI activists from all over the country have now joined hands to form an umbrella body to further the cause.

In conclusion, although prone to misuse in some situations, the Right to Information Act is a giant leap forward in the process of evolution of an ideal democracy. Thus, it should be further enhanced bringing in even more avenues into its ambit, like the controversial cabinet meeting notes. Repealing or weakening the Act would not only be retrograde, but will also seriously jeopardize the future of democracy in this country. On the whole, the issue can be summarized in a 1982 observation by the Supreme Court of India when it said: “An open government is the new democratic culture of an open society towards which every liberal democracy is moving and our country should be no exception. In a country like India, right to know becomes a necessity for the poor, ignorant and illiterate masses. Information is indispensable for the functioning of a true democracy”.

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