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Understanding the ‘Right to Information’

In Accountability,Right to Information on December 3, 2009 by Gautam Tagged: , , ,

Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi in an internview to the Rainmaker recently described the Public Information Officer of every Department as a ‘postman who can only deliver what exists’.

“People don’t really understand what information is.”

Now reason for surprise regarding the RTI is that it is far too successful for its own good. In the first 2 years, more than 2 million RTI application were filed. In the next two years the number jumped twofold.  Its success did not lie in just the numbers but the patterns that these numbers revealed. In a recent study, it was found that upto 30 % of application were filed from rural areas and about 10% of the applicants were  from lower income brackets. 60% percent of the applications are filed towards revealing administrative and bureaucratic inadequacies and misfeasance and about 15% are directed at corruption.  Most of the Appeals before the Commission end up in ruling against the Public Authorities (the number is close to 95%). This trend is very admirable but the challenges posed thereby should be viewed as a significant threat to the future success of the RTI Act.

True that the foremost purpose of the RTI is providing information as it exists; but the underlying object of the RTI Act is as an accountability mechanism. The idea is to hold government functionaries responsible to the people for their screw-ups. Towards this end, it is not enough that people can be provided with information- the process must be followed up with redress.

I just happened to study a few cases before the Information Commissions of a few States- the cases revealed that in cases of mal feasance, corruption and administrative inadequacies, the Commissions powers were limited to providing information to the petitioners and couldnt extend to punishing delinquent officials. Providing information cannot be the sole purpose of the RTI Act if it is to evolve as an effective mechanism of accoutnability.Revealing inadequacies therefore has to be coupled with remedial measures and action against delinquent officials. It is not enough that the PIO ‘plays the postman’.

Going by its success, the State will have to find means to chart the future course of the RTI. The current scenario being the State is trying to amend the RTI to make it less troublesome, I have a slightly different opinion on this aspect. I just concluded a study which showed that the RTI Act can actually be used by the State to its advantage; to increase inefficiency and make its job easier. Reducing corruption and increasing productivity of State Action in a particular area can be convenient byproducts of the RTI. Proactive disclosure of government programs, surveys and findings of investigative agencies for example are simple ways of making sure that officials are less likely to abuse their power. Arbitrariness in administrative decision making being another major hassle, it was seen that the RTI could be used very effectively cull out these deficiencies. A study by the Centre for Policy Research shows that while the Information Commission, on appeals reveal that there has been gross misconduct on the part of the officials, they are generally powerless when it comes to penalising such officials since their powers are restricted to providing information; the applicants continue to remain victims of such practices and are directed to seek remedies from alternative forums, thus falling into the vast cavernous syncholes of a defective justice dispensing system.

First thing on the plan therefore should be to increase the powers of the Information Commissions. This however, will not do much unless an elaborate network is formed whereby the Commissions act in tandem with other tribunals that will go a long way towards strengthening the system of accountability in the Country. With the number of cases in Courts piling up and rising costs of litigation, it may very well be that the balance of power among the organs of the State has tilted away from the Judiciary. The Common man must avail of its benefits and as such will only be possible if it is convenient for him to do so.

A few years back, I wrote a post on Implicity commending the efforts of Ms.Aruna Roy in the enactment of this Statute. I doubt one could predict its success in such formative years.

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