Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Time to re-revitalize RTI

                                              SANJU VERMA

the Act now definitely needs a second revolution to revive the old fervour with which the RTI was first initiated.

With the RTI (Right to Information) Act entering into 10 years of its existence in 2015, it is an appropriate time to analyse its the efficacy and performance on the ground and make a judgment. As the Act came into being following a long and sustained civil society activism, it began very well impacting people’s life very positively.    

It heralded a new era of transparency and accountability in the country’s public life, specially matters pertaining to the governments at all levels- Centre, states and local self-government institutions. A number of significant disclosures were forced by the RTI, including the information regarding 2-G spectrum allocations and Commonwealth Games and so on.

Interestingly, the benefits of Act spread like fire in the jungle among the educated and otherwise empowered city dwellers. Most importantly, it led to the demand for several other equally important rights like the right to employment guarantee, the right to education and the right to food security. The RTI has had the effect of slackening the tight hold of the government and its officials on both information and instrumentalities of the state.

The decade following 2005 witnessed the slow withering away of the Central government and the RTI surely played a role in that unravelling — by increasing irreverence, scrutiny and through the critiquing of its authority among the general public.

However, of late, one witnesses a waning of fervour even though the number of RTI applications has been growing. Obviously, from the beginning, civil society activists and the media have been more enthusiastic about the RTI than civil servants, who have traditionally used information as the source of their power and mystique. The civil service’s indifference and hostility towards the RTI has not diminished over the years; if at all, it has only increased although many government servants, no doubt mostly disgruntled, have also been most successful users of RTI, largely seeking information to fix their own cases and fix those they did not like. Ordinary citizens mostly seek personal information regarding various services otherwise denied to them by the system, be it a passport or a ration card or various commonly required certificates.

Since disclosure of such information poses little threat to the system, the public authorities share such information relatively easily. It is the contentious or potentially controversial information that the public authorities have been very wary of disclosing. Thus, as far as personal information goes or information of an innocuous kind, the RTI has been a success. But as a tool to inculcate the value of transparency, the RTI has neither sunk deep into the government nor among most of the citizenry.

Meanwhile, almost 300 cases of murder, assault and harassment relating to information activism have been recorded in the ten years since the RTI Act came into force. Maharashtra has emerged as the most dangerous state for RTI activists in the country.

While there is no official data on RTI-related crime, figures compiled by the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative found 230 cases of assault and harassment, 49 murders, and four suicides, over the past ten years.

CHRI data found that Maharashtra has double the number of cases (murders, attacks, harassment) than Gujarat, which comes in second followed by Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Maharashtra also has the highest number of murders followed by Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

CHRI Data:

States with highest number of RTI-Related Murders from October (2005-2015)

Maharashtra 10
Gujarat 7
Uttar Pradesh 6
Bihar 5
Karnataka 4
Andhra Pradesh 3

Thus the Act now definitely needs a second revolution to revive the old fervour with which the RTI was first initiated. As far as laws go, the RTI Act has been the best thing to happen after the Constitution of India; we must make it work.

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