Sunday, 11 October 2009

Four Years of the RTI Act: Aspirations and Concerns

Shekhar Singh

As “RTI” turns four, it is yet another moment to reflect on our hopes from it and the worries we have. Unlike many other countries of the World, RTI in India was not a hesitant starter. People took to it like proverbial fish to water. Over 2 million applications were filed in just the first two and a half years, with a significant proportion (over 400,000) in rural areas. More impressively, the rate at which the number of applications is increasing is phenomenal and it would not be surprising if it doubles in the next one or two years. The term “RTI” has entered the Indian lexicon in a big way and is understood across languages and regions.

However, the success of an RTI Act cannot finally be judged on the number of applications filed. Certainly the first phase of the implementation requires growing awareness and enthusiasm, reflected through fast growing numbers of applications. But, soon, systemic solutions have to take over. Governments (and other public authorities) must recognize that this onslaught of RTI applications reveals a thirst in the public for information which they have for so long been deprived of. Even more disturbingly, it reveals a huge dissatisfaction with the way public authorities are functioning and dealing with the public and their grievances.

Therefore, our first aspiration is that public authorities start seriously reviewing the types of RTI applications being received and start putting out, proactively, the types of information that the public is regularly seeking. This would not only lower the pressure of RTI applications on the public authorities but also make it easier for people to access information without the travails of filing and pursuing applications.

They also need to analyse the reasons behind these applications – which are very often about unwarranted delays, arbitrary decisions, unfair action or apathy, inefficiency and indifference. As public authorities start making the required systemic changes to prevent such grievances from arising, many of the grievance related applications will cease.

If this does not happen, one concern is that the RTI regime will translate into an RTI divide – where those who file RTIs will get relief, often at the cost of those who do not or cannot, and consequently get even more ignored.

Another aspiration is that the bureaucracy will begin to realize that, despite some irritants and “misuse”, the RTI Act has the potential of transforming governance in a way that would not only make their work easier but would increase the credibility of governments. Unless this change comes, the concern is that RTI will remain a battlefield, with information providers fighting every inch to deny information to the information seekers – and neither side winning in the end.

Finally, the RTI Act has to be protected from all attacks. It is gratifying that there is so much interest among the government to weaken the Act – at least two attempts has been made to amend it and a third is now imminent. It is gratifying because it reassures us that we have finally got hold of an important right, one that hurts where it should. For, after all, this is the first law which does not further the control of the government over the people but gives some control to the people over the government.

However, the concern is that if the government succeeds in weakening the Act, even for a short while, they would give heart to the opponents and demoralize the people. They would open the doors to a gradual chipping away at the Act till finally it falls into line and becomes a farce, along with many other so-called pro-people legislations. This, clearly, cannot be allowed to happen.

Shekhar Singh is the founding member of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information and member of Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group

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