Right to Information: The Promise of Participatory Democracy and Accountability

In July 2019, the parliament passed an amendment to the Right to Information Act, 2005, that reduces its effectiveness. The amendment adds to the long list of erosions the Act has weathered by prior governments.

From uncovering large-scale scams like the 2G Spectrum sale, the 2008 Commonwealth Games and 2017 demonetisation without Reserve Bank of India approval to overcoming more everyday instances of governmental corruption and lethargy for not disbursing public funds under pension and insurance schemes, the Right to Information (RTI) has played a vital role in increasing transparency and accountability for citizens. 

On average, citizens file six million RTI applications every year. When passed in 2005, the Act was fortified and robust; government officials were fined for delays in providing information or for falsifying or destroying information. Moreover, the institution responsible for governing the act—the Central Information Commission (CIC)— was given the degree of independence comparable to the Election Commission of India.

However, the most recent amendment, passed by the Rajya Sabha on 25 July 2019 reduces the independence of the CIC. From 2011 to 2013 India maintained the second position amongst 123 countries with functioning information access laws, but continued to slip positions from 2014.  For the first time since the enactment of the law, in 2014, the top position for the CIC was left vacant for 10 months.  Vacancies for other positions within the commission also increased under the National Democratic Allainace (NDA) government. It was only after activists went to the Supreme Court to demand prompt appointments to the commission did the government announce appointments of commissioners. Vacancies for prolonged periods have the effect of increasing the already high number of pending applications for timely information.

In this reading list, we trace the grass-root efforts taken to establish the Act as well as important events in the Act’s 14-year-long history. 

1) Grass-root Efforts to Gain Transparency

In June 1994, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) noticed accounting and procedural errors in a public development scheme by the local gram panchayat in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district. The MKSS had been working on a range of labour issues such as fair minimum wages and cooperative shops for about seven years prior. Deepti Priya details how MKSS activists were aware that this was not an isolated example and began auditing several developmental programmes. They approached local government officials in a systematic manner to ask for information. More importantly, they organised public hearings on public expenditure in five different villages. Locals attended these hearings with great interest and the Rajasthan press widely covered them. Priya’s vivid details take us to the discussion rooms that culminated in the watershed Act:

The participation of ordinary people, both Poor and middle class, is one of the most promising aspects of the present process of public hearings. Each public hearing as well as the public meetings have had women and men in more or less equal numbers. Bila Bai, recently elected as a panchayat member, told the gathering, " Women who go to meetings are called 'loose' women, but this mentality has to change, and it is changing. I attend all panchayat meetings, I ask for complete information. It is time for us to take part, time for us to remove our veils!" Lal Singhji of Sohangarh village noted the meeting, "Most of the people gathered here do not have even two square meals a day. Yet everybody who has come here has spent their own money for the tickets."

2) Watershed Moment: RTI Act Gets Passed in 2005

As the movement for information and transparency gained strength, several grass-root public interest organisations joined the MKSS. Their actions culminated in the passage of the Act in 2005. 

EPW’s editorial from 2005 proclaims that the Act would introduce “true participatory democracy” since government departments and officials would be “constantly, and not just once in five years, answerable to the people, and not merely for its achievements and failures, but for each specific action and process.” The editorial identified the Act’s provisions as exceptional and an indication of India’s maturity given that in 2005 governments were becoming increasingly secretive, often using security concerns as a cover. 

[T]here is a blanket exemption for security and intelligence agencies, despite the fact that any information, the disclosure of which would threaten the security and integrity of India, is already exempt. On the plus side, the law allows access to information pertaining to security or intelligence agencies, if the information sought relates to corruption or violations of human rights. There is a progressive public interest override, which specifies that even exempted information can be released if the public interest in disclosing it outweighs any possible harm.

3) RTI Practitioners and Their Protection  

The Act was envisioned to give power to lay citizens to gain transparency and accountability on government decisions and schemes, thus reducing malpractices by stakeholders. However, given that powerful stakeholders gain from these malpractices, the story of the RTI cannot be told without recounting the consistent cases of intimidation and violence against RTI users. Christophe Jaffrelot and Basim-U-Nissa offer six detailed accounts of citizens who were attacked as a result of their use of the RTI. They choose to write about RTI users in Gujarat because it—along with Bihar and Haryana—presents a context where the number of attacks (per lakh RTI applications) is disproportionately high when compared to other states. 

In the cases they examined, RTI activists’ role extended beyond exposing malpractice and crime to providing “alternative leadership at the local level” such as the sarpanch of the gram panchayat. However, in recurring cases, the police fail to protect RTI activists and in some cases the police actually deal directly with local mafias, politicians and business people.

The best allies of RTI activists are NGOs and the media. Newspapers and TV channels can make a difference when they publish cases taken up by RTI activists by giving offending bureaucrats, industrialists, and politicians bad publicity. Indeed, some of the most dedicated RTI activists are journalists. The reasons for the murder, assault, and harassment of small-town journalists are very similar to those for RTI activists.

4) Reviewing One Decade of the RTI Act

Alok Prasanna Kumar, in his review of Tilting the Balance of Power: Adjudicating the RTI Act which examines the RTI’s effectiveness a decade since its introduction, supports the book’s claims. He shows how the ct has indeed increased transparency and accountability in the government. However, he notes two major critiques of the Act. First, that information about the CIC itself is ironically not easily accessible. This includes details on how officials are chosen, how evaulations are conducted and more. Second, while courts have come to safeguard the Act against governmental interference and inaction on appointments, in several instances courts themselves have refused to abide by other norms of the Act. 

In its ongoing tussle with the union government over judicial appointments, the public is entirely in the dark about the contents of the proposed memorandum of procedure of appointments of judges to the Supreme Court and the high courts and unable to participate meaningfully in the debate. The public is unaware of the exact reasons for the disagreement and whether the judiciary is right in its objections. Without the backing of civil society, the judiciary is coming across as self-serving. Instead of a constitutional debate over separation of powers, the public is left with a turf war fought through leaks and whispers.

5) Promise of Participatory Democracy 

As previously mentioned, when the Act was passed the CIC was given a level of independence comparable to the Election Commission of India. Alok Prasanna Kumar, quoting Yashovardhan Azad and M Sridhar Acharyulu, reminds us that this was done “keeping in mind the constitutional status of the right to information" which enjoys the same constitutional recognition as the right to vote.”

However, an amendment to the Act passed in August 2019 erodes this independence to a degree. Kumar maintains that the "central government cannot penalise an independent minded IC by removing them," but clarifies that the goverment's actions do not bode well. 

The absence of a real justification for this amendment, failure to address the real deficiencies in the RTI institutions, and the absence of any public participation in the process, all speak to a larger fear, that of a government which will do as it pleases, no matter the consequences for the populace.

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