Is the RTI Act fulfilling its purpose?

December 16, 2022 12:30 am | Updated 12:09 pm IST

People at an RTI office in Bengaluru. File

People at an RTI office in Bengaluru. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Right to Information (RTI) Act was passed by Parliament in 2005, aiming to give people access to the records of the Central and State governments. It was a vital reform to help activists and individuals ensure transparency and accountability in governance. In a discussion moderated by Sonikka Loganathan, Anjali Bhardwaj and Saurav Das take stock of what’s working and the issues that appear to be weakening the law. Edited excerpts: 

Is the RTI Act fulfilling its purpose?

Anjali Bhardwaj: It has been one of the most empowering legislations for people because this is the one law that puts an obligation on the government to respond to them in a time-bound manner, to get them information to hold the government accountable. The law has, in many ways, tilted the balance of power in favour of those governed. That is, I think, something that people in the country at large have understood. So when there is denial of their rights and entitlements such as their rations, pensions, medicines in hospitals or education in schools, they reach out to government departments to file an RTI application, and very often they do get information.

We have seen that a majority of the RTI applications are filed by people who are asking about their basic rights and entitlements. So it has fulfilled its purpose to that extent. The other thing is that to hold high offices to account, people have used the RTI law to know what is happening with taxpayers’ money. This has enabled them to expose big-ticket scams such as the Adarsh, Commonwealth Games and Vyapam scams. They’ve also been able to expose human rights violations, and then force accountability in those cases as well

Saurav Das: To a certain extent, yes. The Act is still effective despite the widespread attempts to dilute its efficacy. This is because the law was born out of a sustained people’s movement. Officers still think twice before replying to an RTI query, which reflects the seriousness with which it is taken. The major impediment is the lack of awareness of this law and lack of widespread adoption. By adoption, I mean people really thinking of the law as their own creation. The day these two things are achieved, the RTI Act’s real mandate will be realised.

Do you have to be an RTI expert to know how to properly file questions? 

Anjali Bhardwaj: What is remarkable about the RTI Act is that it came as a result of a very strong grassroots movement, where people from all walks of life came together to say that there was a need for a legislation to ensure that they were empowered to seek information from the government. The law basically ensures that there is no set format in which an RTI application has to be filed. It’s a fairly straightforward, simple process. The quality of information one receives depends on how the questions are drafted and framed. Our research has shown that a very large percentage of RTI applications are filed by the poorest and the most marginalised, usually asking for information that relates to their very basic rights and entitlements.

So somebody asking for their ration card, whether the ration card has been made or not, it’s a fairly simple question. And they’re able to ask that question without too much training. But when one asks for complex information, which deals with, let’s say, corruption, large scams or cases of violations of the law or human rights, that is when one needs to really frame the questions in a very detailed manner — where expertise helps.

Saurav Das: The beauty of this Act is its simplicity. But, for example, in High Courts, if you are asking for information, they have particular forms through which you can seek information. If you file an application in Odisha, they have a particular format for filing. These sorts of rules create hindrances for people.

Anjali Bhardwaj: There are some States where you can only file an RTI application within 150 words. Condensing the question, especially for those who might not have the benefit of a formal education, becomes a challenge.

Is the RTI ensuring transparency between the citizen and the government, as it was intended to do? 

Saurav Das: Very cleverly, the public information officers these days use words like this division does not have the information. So now they are putting, in a way, the liability on the applicant to find out which officer and which office will hold that information. This is not in consonance with the RTI Act because the liability is on the officer to find out who is holding the information and transfer the RTI application.

Anjali Bhardwaj: They’re supposed to specifically refer to which section they’re using to deny information. Without even referring to a section, we are seeing a large number of denials where people are just told that this information cannot be provided to you, which is an illegal denial.

Was this reluctance to share information always a problem?

Anjali Bhardwaj: When the law came in 2005, it revolutionised the information space. It meant that anyone could ask any public authority for information, and there has been resistance from the very beginning. The first attempt to amend the law came within 10 months of it being introduced. We’re seeing that there are problems at various levels today. First, within the government, asking for information is not encouraged. Second, even maintaining datasets and information, putting information in the public domain has become a big problem. So during COVID-19, for example, when the government was asked how many people lost their lives due to lack of oxygen, about the number of migrant workers, on all of that the government said, we don’t have any data. The 2021 census hasn’t happened, and the government is now saying it’s been indefinitely postponed. Now, that is a source of data. So if the government doesn’t collect data, or doesn’t put it out, then people’s right to information becomes really restricted. There is a large-scale denial of information.

There have been several attempts by governments to amend the law. And in every case, whether it was the proposed amendment to say that file notings will not be part of the right to information or it was to say that political parties will be left out of the ambit of the RTI Act, people protested and governments had to step back.

Of course, in 2019, they did go ahead and make the amendments (giving the government the power to set service conditions for information commissioners). But despite threats, attacks and murders of RTI users, people are still using the law extensively, which testifies to the fact that it’s something that they find very powerful.

If the law has been whittled down, could you give us examples of what ways in which this has happened? 

Saurav Das: Successive governments have tried to whittle down this law, beginning with the United Progressive Alliance itself, the creator of this law. State governments have tried and are still trying to do it. But the two biggest and successful attempts have been made or are being made by the National Democratic Alliance government. Once in 2019, and the second now, by way of the Data Protection Bill which will most likely pass.

Anjali Bhardwaj: We have huge vacancies in information commissions, which means that appeals and complaints keep pending.

Other laws can impact the RTI Act such as the updated Data Protection Bill. Can you explain what kind of issues this is causing.  

Anjali Bhardwaj: The Data Protection Bill will set up a system of amending the RTI law in a manner that all personal information will be exempted. In a community where people are not being given their entitlements or rights under the public distribution system, for example, there is granular information that is put up saying this is the name of the person, [these are] the rations that they are being given, their address, so as to enable a social audit in order to put pressure on the government and hold them accountable. We feel now that the entire proactive disclosure scheme, which was provided for under the RTI Act, is going to be completely undermined. Anjali Bhardwaj is the Co-Convenor of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information; Saurav Das is a transparency activist

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