Tinkering with RTI dangerous for democracy
There is a need to change the Right To Information law, as suggested by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but to strengthen it, not weaken.
PM Singh has rightly pointed out concerns of the government but these concerns need to be looked in the context of what the transparency law has done to governance in India.
The RTI had been instrumental in exposing the Adarsh Housing Society scam in up-market Colaba in Mumbai. Use of fraudulent Environment Impact Assessment reports to get project clearances have also come to light. RTI had played an important role in revealing illegal mining in Goa and Karnataka.
These are just a drop in the ocean of instances where the RTI had helped citizens in pointing out deep rooted nexus between mafia and those in power. The Finance ministry’s note on 2G scam disclosed under RTI may have triggered the government’s latest tirade against RTI. But, it is now embedded in history that the citizens for the first time have got a power to question a rogue babu, who, otherwise, turns a blind eye towards their agonies.
Central Information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi admitted of existence of vexatious RTI applications, to which PM referred on Friday, but said they would not be more than 3-5% of close to one crore RTI applications filed last year. Can such a minuscule aberration be a reason to change the law?
The problem is not the citizens but the government servants themselves. Himachal Pradesh information commission has found that over 60% of the appeals filed with it are by the government servants against their parent organizations with almost zero public interest. It clearly shows that the government has failed to create awareness about the RTI among masses of its productive use and those who know RTI’s utility (babus) have resorted to its misuse for redressing personal grievances.
Repeated studies show that most citizens are not aware what type of information they can seek and the government’s record on voluntary declaration of information to citizens has been poor. The private sector has a better record on voluntary declaration of people-friendly information. The North Delhi Power Limited (NDPL) provides bill history of its customers online whereas not even a single public sector’s Delhi Jal Board’s water bill can be accessed on its website.
Primary reason for government’s apathy towards voluntary declaration is its failure to issue guidelines on mandatory sharing of information such as expenditure on public works with people. Its impact is no uniformity on voluntary disclosure with certain ministries such as Rural Development and Environment being proactive whereas some like Planning Commission and Women and Child Development lagging far behind.
PM’s concerns cannot be brushed aside as some of the civil society members have done. To initiate serious debate the government needs to come up with evidence to back the PM’s idea. It is a known fact that bureaucracy in India likes to work under a cloak of secrecy and hates transparency aimed at questioning them. Former Cabinet secretary and member Planning Commission BK Chaturvedi was candid enough to claim that bureaucracy knows when to inform people about the decisions. That, to me, creates doubts regarding government’s ‘real’ intention to change the RTI Act.
RTI, to me, is the only law in India that empowers aam aadmi whereas all other laws empower the government agencies in instilling a fear in citizens in the world’s biggest democracy. My fear is that the PM caution on RTI can act as a catalyst for politico-bureaucratic nexus for their individual gain rather than country as a whole. RTI is still in a nascent stage and government should allow it to evolve without tampering.