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India’s transparency law in India i.e. Right to Information (RTI) is one of the most powerful legislation that was enacted on 12 October 2005. Although the need for RTI was triggered much earlier it was only in the 1990s that the struggle for demanding this legislation really took off. In Rajasthan, some of the labourers working on daily wage basis were deprived of their minimum wages and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a non-political organization came forward to help them. Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Shankar Singh, Shekhar Singh from MKSS started conducting jan-sunwais (public hearings) for spreading awareness at various places in Rajasthan. The movement soon gathered strength with social activists like Anna Hazare with Arvind Kejriwal, Shailesh Gandhi, Prakash Kardaley and others demanding a legislation to bring a law seeking transparency and accountability in India. Tamil Nadu became the first state to commence RTI in 1997 followed by Goa (1997), Madhya Pradesh (1998), Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka in 2000 (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, 2018).

What constitutes ‘information’?

Section 2(f) of RTI Act defines “information” as any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advice, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force;

Wherein “record” according to Section 2(i) includes—

  • any document, manuscript and file;
  • any microfilm, microfiche and facsimile copy of a document;

(c) any reproduction of image or images embodied in such microfilm (whether enlarged or not); and

(d) any other material produced by a computer or any other device;

What is ‘Right to Information’?

So as per Section 2(j) “right to information” means the right to information accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes the right to—(i) inspection of work, documents, records;

(ii) taking notes, extracts, or certified copies of documents or records;

(iii) taking certified samples of material;

(iv) obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device;

Section 2(h) of the RTI Act defines “public authority” as any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted,—

(a) by or under the Constitution;

(b) by any other law made by Parliament;

(c) by any other law made by State Legislature;

(d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government, and includes any—

(i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed;

(ii) non-Government Organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government;

Apart from public authority, one may also access information of any private entity, subject to the condition that the public authority may be legally entitled to access such information sought by you under any existing law.

Unfortunately today the RTI Act is in a state of dismay. According to a study done by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES), the number of appeals and complaints pending as on December 31, 2016, in the 23 information commissions were 1,81,852. This pendency arose to 1,99,186 at the end of October 2017 (Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies, 2018). Also either the posts of chief information commissioners are vacant or the information commissions are functioning at a reduced capacity. It is also seen that Section 4 of RTI Act which is suo motu disclosure of information by public authorities is itself violated by information commissions. Eventually either the information is not available in the public domain or if it is, then such information is obsolete.

Section 4(1) of the RTI Act defines the obligations of public authorities.—

(1) Every public authority shall—

(a) maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and the form which facilitates the right to information under this Act and ensure that all records that are appropriate to be computerised are, within a reasonable time and subject to availability of resources, computerised and connected through a network all over the country on different systems so that access to such records is facilitated;

(b) publish within one hundred and twenty days from the enactment of this Act,—

(i) the particulars of its organisation, functions and duties;

(ii) the powers and duties of its officers and employees;

(iii) the procedure followed in the decision-making process, including channels of supervision and accountability;

(iv) the norms set by it for the discharge of its functions;

(v) the rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and records, held by it or under its control or used by its employees for discharging its functions;

(vi) a statement of the categories of documents that are held by it or under its control;

(vii) the particulars of any arrangement that exists for consultation with, or representation by, the members of the public in relation to the formulation of its policy or implementation thereof;

(viii) a statement of the boards, councils, committees and other bodies consisting of two or more persons constituted as its part or for the purpose of its advice, and as to whether meetings of those boards, councils, committees and other bodies are open to the public, or the minutes of such meetings are accessible for public;

(ix) a directory of its officers and employees;

(x) the monthly remuneration received by each of its officers and employees, including the system of compensation as provided in its regulations;

(xi) the budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made;

(xii) the manner of execution of subsidy programmes, including the amounts allocated and the details of beneficiaries of such programmes;

(xiii) particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it;

(xiv) details in respect of the information, available to or held by it, reduced in an electronic form;

(xv) the particulars of facilities available to citizens for obtaining information, including the working hours of a library or reading room, if maintained for public use;

(xvi) the names, designations and other particulars of the Public Information Officers;

(xvii) such other information as may be prescribed, and thereafter update these publications every year;

(c) publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect the public;

(d) provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to affected persons.

(2) It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.

(3) For the purpose of sub-section (1), every information shall be disseminated widely and in such form and manner which is easily accessible to the public.

(4) All materials shall be disseminated taking into consideration the cost effectiveness, local language and the most effective method of communication in that local area and the information should be easily accessible, to the extent possible in electronic format with the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, available free or at such cost of the medium or the print cost price as may be prescribed. Explanation.—For the purposes of sub-sections (3) and (4), “disseminated” means making known or communicated the information to the public through notice boards, newspapers, public announcements, media broadcasts, the internet or any other means, including inspection of offices of any public authority.

No doubt every government in aspiration of power promises transparency and accountability in governance to the public but eventually fails to maintain those. (Business Standard, 2018)  (The Hans India, 2018). Eventually, although many of the political parties are ought to be under the definition of ‘public authority’ but have successfully dodged been away from the ambit of RTI (Economic Times, 2018). Although in an order passed by Central Information Commission (CIC) on 3 June 2013, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) had been brought under the ambit of RTI, the decision soon got embroiled in controversy and currently under consideration against an appeal to be heard after re-constitution of a larger bench by CIC.

After all, what is ‘transparency’? Isn’t it being crystal clear on policies of public, for it’s the masses who are the tax-payers and beneficiaries? Not surprisingly, the incumbent Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) till date has rejected several RTI applications on queries relating to demonetization, PM foreign trips, black money, bad loans and defaulters list, inter alia.

However, no country can progress without having transparency and accountability in its governance and RTI isn’t just a law but a tool for the functioning of better democracy. It is a citizen’s fundamental right derived from Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution which states that all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression. Information is just an expression like any other and thus it should be pervaded free into society. If the expansion of information is throttled, then it’s very likely to cause the death of the freedom of a free and fair society. In fact at first step, there would exist very less scope for a citizen to exercise RTI if at all the public authorities implement Section 4 of RTI in its true spirit since it is so exhaustive that it would include much of the essential information. This, as a result, would also help the Public Information Officers (PIOs) in lessening their task and eventually help reduce the burden of appeals and/or complaints.

References:

Business Standard. (2018, November 17). BJP's Vision Document for MP promises safety for women, jobs, transparency in governance, and better farmer income. Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.

Economic Times. (2018, August 20). CIC divided over bringing political parties under RTI. India.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. (2018, December 11). Retrieved from Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan: http://mkssindia.org/about/

Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies. (2018, March). Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India. Retrieved from http://snsindia.org/rti-assessments/: http://snsindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Report-Card-on-Performance-of-Information-Commissions-2018-Key-findings-FINAL.pdf

The Hans India. (2018, November 27). Congress releases Manifesto: Promises transparent, accountable government. Telangana, India.

 (The views expressed by the author are his personal. For any feedback/suggestions, he may be reached on shrikrishna.law@gmail.com)

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Written By Shrikrishna Kachave

Shrikrishna is an introvert, a pacifist and takes pride in being a righteous human being.

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