RTI Act: A potent legislation in the hands of the public
Dr. K. Ratnabali
In today’s world, rights have taken such a centre-stage that dealings and relations amongst persons, juristic or otherwise, and even to a certain extent citizens and State are understood in the language of ‘rights’.Out of the realm of rights that is recognized in modern societies, right to information is one of the recent additions.
If the jurisprudence of this right is traced in India, it is found that right to information emerges from the right to know (S.P. Gupta v. Union of India)– the right to know the truth and the facts as they stand. Freedom of speech and expression has lesser meaning without the right to know or in other words, in a vibrant democracy the right to be informed so as to form the right opinion forms a vital part of this freedom.This right has been defined as the right of every citizen to be informed about information relating to every matter that may be of personal concern, or that may affect the public interest (NHRC publication). This right has been incorporated in the Right to Information Act 2005 which is a legislation aimed at securing access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority and to curb corruption and to hold government and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed.
The preamble of the Act sets out there itself that information will be bifurcated into those that may be provided to the public at large and those that are sensitive and thus may not be disclosed.The kind of information that may be disclosed under the Act are very wide and includesany material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, and even notings made on the file.An information seeker has to pay a nominal sum(Rs. 10 as application fee) for obtaining information and the information requested has to be provided in a time-bound manner within thirty days in general by the PIO (Principal Information Officer).
How can this Act be a potent legislation in the hands of the public? Every citizen is now able to obtain wide range of information from the authorities. For instance electorate may seek information pertaining to candidates standing in an election, this will aid the information seeker in taking an informed decision on whom to vote and elect as the right representative of his/her choice. This helps in proper exercise of the right to franchise by the citizenry.
The governed shall be able to find out through information obtained under this Act, the amount of budget allocated under specified heads by the government, whether ithas been properly utilized or not, to whom has the contract for a work been granted and how, the progress in work and its completion, the welfare schemes/projects initiated by the government and beneficiaries thereof,so onand so forth. This will help in bringing transparency in governmental work and curb corruption.
In those organizations/bodies/institutions where RTI has been given full effect, there is improvement in the organization of records, notings and reports are carefully made as these may be disclosed before the public, decisions taken are based on proper rules rather than whims and fancies of the authorities etc. In short the governance of the country has improved wherever RTI has been implemented in letter and spirit.
RTI indeed has woken the administrative machinery from deep slumber. But can it work in this part of the country or not? There is no doubt that there is a vibrant civil society in this State who would be willing to come forward to obtain information. From the side of the informant (government) there is need to appoint Principal Information Officer (PIO) in each government department to look into the RTI applications independently, devoid of the influence of the department. Proper training and workshop on RTI Act are required to be imparted to these officials who will be deliberating upon what information may be disclosed to the information seeker in respect of his right to information and what may not be disclosed as per section 8 of the RTI Act. The Act heavily hinges upon the role of PIOs.
To make the Act effective, there is requirement of strict implementation and compliance with the provisions of the Act. Statutory penalties must be strictly imposed for non-compliance of the provisions of the Act.All government departments must disclose their information as per section 4 of the Act. The Urban Development Department and Directorate of Health and Family Welfare, Nagaland have already put up the relevant information on their website and others should follow suit in a time bound manner.
Spreading awareness about the Act is very crucial for fulfilling the aim and purpose of this Act. In this respect, the effort made by Youth Net need to be appreciated and supported so that each citizenry become an agent of the governed to monitor the performance of the administration and make the government accountable. Indeed RTI Act, if used in the right spirit and complied by the authorities, can bring about monumental change in the functioning of the government and be a starting point for good governance.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Deputy Dean Legal Affairs, University of Delhi.