ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Amended RTI vs Participatory Democracy

Asymmetry of information between citizens and the state erodes the functioning of a transparent democracy.

 

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill passed by Parliament recently threatens to strike at the core of the right to information (RTI) and undermines the institution of the Central Information Commission (CIC). The hurried manner in which it was introduced without following the pre-legislative consultation policy creates serious doubts about the intentions of the government. Why would this government deem it necessary to foreclose a rigorous scrutiny of these amendments? Why the insistence on not sending the bill to a select committee? A closer look at the amendments suggests the continuation of its practice of hollowing institutions and rights of their essence while they continue to exist formally.

The RTI Act, 2005 empowers the citizen to question the secrecy and abuse of power practised in governance. It is through the information commissions at the central and state levels that access to such information is provided. This information can be regarded as a public good, for it is relevant to the interests of citizens and is a crucial pillar for the functioning of a transparent and vibrant democracy. The RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 amends Sections 13, 15 and 27 of the RTI Act, 2005 to empower the central government to prescribe through rules the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief and other information commissioners at the central and state levels. But, the amendments that grant powers to the centre to decide on the tenure, allowances, and terms of service of information commissioners, by tinkering with the incentive structure offered, would undermine the autonomy and independence of the institution of the information commissions and hinder the effective implementation of the RTI as enshrined in the act.

Further, the amendment also appears t0 be another manifestation of the form of “coercive federalism” seemingly practised by the central government by infringing upon the powers of the respective states, and is therefore undemocratic. This would have serious implications for the credibility of the institution of the information commissioner in the future, which is crucial to removing information asymmetries between the citizen and the state, and is vital to making governance in a democracy accountable and transparent in its functioning. The degree of transparency in governance would not only determine to what extent the agent or the government would be able to pursue the goals that are in the interest of the citizens of the state, but such information could serve multiple purposes, which would serve the overall interests of the society.

Every year, around six million applications are filed under the RTI Act, making it the most extensively used sunshine legislation globally. These applications seek information on a range of issues, from holding the government accountable for delivery of basic rights and entitlements to questioning the highest offices of the country. Using the RTI Act, people have sought information that governments would not like to reveal as it may expose corruption, human rights violations, and wrongdoings by the state. During the debate in Parliament, several members pointed to instances in the past few years wherein information was denied to applicants when the information commissions had directed disclosure.

The fundamental question is: Why would a democratically elected government want to exclude citizens from accessing information? Vigilant citizens can actively access information so as to ensure the clean democratic functioning of public institutions. The RTI offers them an opportunity to contribute to a robust democracy. The idea of democracy that the ruling party seems to be practising is hinged upon treating citizens as passive subjects. The access to information about policies, decisions and actions of the government that affect the lives of citizens is an instrument to ensure accountability. Therefore, it is the people who are at the centre of politics, and not the rulers and leaders. The Supreme Court has, in several judgments, held that the RTI is a fundamental right flowing from Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution, which guarantee to citizens the freedom of speech and expression and the right to life, respectively. The current government is trying to diminish the role of citizens to passive recipients of controlled, selective, and distorted information, thereby reducing citizens to subjects. Subjects are not supposed to ask questions of their rulers and effectively blocking access to information reduces this possibility. Another fallout is the adverse effect on investigative journalism, which has used RTI as a tool to unearth the truth. Such dilution would further insulate the government—which is anyway keen on ensuring a pliable media that acts as its amplifier—from probing journalism.

The RTI emerged through mass movement, and its continuance and deepening would also hinge on its use as a form of collective action to ensure accountability. Indeed, there have been several instances of the spontaneous use of the RTI by individual citizens (apart from social movements), which only goes to validate the spirit of the RTI. Hundreds of RTI activists have been murdered, assaulted, harassed or threatened. Such sacrifices are difficult to sustain at the level of the individual in the face of relentless systemic assaults. The process to roll back these amendments and restore the right to information cannot be achieved without mobilising the masses in defence of their hard-won rights.

Updated On : 27th Jul, 2019

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