The Constitution of India in Article 19(1) specifies that the Right to Information is an essential component of the fundamental rights. Every citizen has a right to freedom of speech and expression and the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 is a manifestation of this constitutional guarantee.
In summer of April 1996, the people of Beawar, a small town Rajasthan marched to the office of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate with a simple request, “Hamara paisa, hamara hisaab” (our money, our account). This was a defining moment – all they wanted was their right to information. In 1976, in the Raj Narain vs the State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court of India upheld that for people to have a voice they need information. The court added that in context of the Indian democracy, people are the masters and this gives them the right to know about the functioning of the government.
A landmark act – the RTI gave every citizen the right to receive a timely response from the government for any information that is sought by them with respect to the functioning of the government.
The RTI portal created by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions proved to be a powerful tool for citizen empowerment, transparency, and accountability uncovering numerous acts of misconduct including the coal block and 2g spectrum allocation, lapses around the conduct of the Commonwealth games and use of money intended for victims of the Kargil war and disasters being used to buy cars and air-conditioners. The magnitude of the RTI can never be overstated.
The RTI Assessment and Analysis Group (RAAG) report found that every year 4 to 5 million applications are filed. The Act required public authorities to make disclosures on aspects of their structure and functioning including financial information. When asked, they also have to provide information about employees and officers.
The purpose of such suo moto disclosures is that the public should need minimum recourse through the Act to obtain information. The intention was encouragement of transparency and answerability in the working of Public Authorities. Public Authorities include bodies established under the Constitution, or under any law or government notification and any entity (or non government organization) owned, controlled or significantly financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the government. A three tier structure was established for enforcing the right to information guaranteed by it and public authorities under the act have to delegate a few officers as Public Information Officers.
The functioning of the Act was not without challenges. Data shows high level of pendency which at times had also to do with frivolous queries. Public authorities also showed slipshodness in publishing information and commissioners lacked power and infrastructure for running and enforcing their decisions. In 2007 the CIC’s pronouncement to include Indraprastha Gas Ltd. under the Act was stayed by the Delhi High Court.
The watering down of additional laws like the Whistleblower Protection Act led to numerous problems including a number of RTI activists losing not just their jobs but also their lives. Nanjibhai Sondarva, a resident of Manekvada village in Kotda Sangani from Rajkot district, was purportedly hacked to death by six people talking the toll of RTI deaths to 67.
The RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 has proposed changes in the terms and conditions of service of the CIC and information commissioners at the centre and in states. The terms of office, in addition to salaries, allowances and others terms and conditions of service will now be notified by the government.
Earlier the tenure of the information commissioners was fixed at five years and the salaries of the CIC and Information Commissioners was at par with the salary paid to the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, respectively. At the state level the salaries were equivalent to the salaries paid to the Election Commissioners and the Chief Secretary to the state government, respectively,
The assumption that the conduct of free and fair elections is more important than transparency is incongruous. It is true that elections are part of the basic structure of the Constitution and both the Election Commissioners and Information commissioners are important for the process ensuring a citizen’s right to access about the government and making an educated decision. This can only be ensured if the Commission is not made ineffectual which the amendment seeks to do.
The guarantee of the fixed tenure of the CIC and SIC that the original act provided and which has been altered by the present amendment was a necessity for their autonomy. A CIC at the mercy of central government for his tenure and salary cannot be expected to be bold and free while directing the authorities to provide information required especially when the information may be considered to be sensitive by the central government. This security of tenure was at par with Judges of constitutional court and lokayukta who in a democratic society are not only expected, but are required to be free and fair. There were whispers that this act is being diluted to prevent information about the prime minister’s education being made public, but with a case pertaining to the same in the Delhi High Court, all such rumours are largely unfounded.
However, over the years this is not the first time the government has made an attempt to dilute the Act and the people have stood up and guarded their constitutional right. Interestingly, no government has ever spoken about strengthening the act. A decade after it was enacted the Act has mostly upheld its promise of effectiveness and transparency. It’s a people’s right and the people must be consulted and inputs taken from them to bring more effective and democratic changes in line with the Constitution. The fulfilment of a constitutional assurance that started with agitation of the people of Beawar and culminated in the RTI act must be strengthened, cherished, guarded, and not weakened.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. Newsd neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)