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A concerted attack on RTI

  • 14 October, 2020

  • 5 Min Read

A concerted attack on RTI

Context:

  • The year 2020 marks 15 years of the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) law in India. The article analyses the significance of the RTI Act and also evaluates some concerns regarding the weakening of the right to information regime.

RTI applications in India:

  • Every year nearly six million applications are filed under the RTI Act, making the RTI act of India, the most extensively used transparency legislation in the world.

Right to information as a fundamental right:

  • The right to information has been upheld by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right flowing from Article 19 of the Constitution (right to freedom).
  • Article 19 guarantees every citizen the right to free speech and expression. Without access to relevant information, people’s ability to formulate opinions and express themselves meaningfully is curtailed.
  • This observation was made in the Kulwal v/s Jaipur Municipal Corporation case (1986).

Significance of the RTI law:

1. Accountability:

  • The RTI law has allowed the citizens to hold governments accountable by seeking information. RTI has empowered citizens to question those who govern and hold them to account.
  • Eg: During the COVID-19 crisis, the RTI law has been widely used to seek information about the availability of medical facilities, like ventilators and ICU beds.

2. Transparency:

  • Increased transparency can help improve decision making by public authorities by removing unnecessary secrecy.
  • Eg: RTI applications have been filed to obtain information about the anonymous electoral bonds funding the political parties.

3. Exposing corruption:

  • The RTI Act by reducing information asymmetries has been instrumental in exposing corruption and arbitrary abuse of power by the state.
  • By giving every citizen of India the right to access government files and records, the law has potentially created 1.3 billion whistleblowers and auditors.
  • RTI applications have helped expose wrongdoings in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games, and the allocation of 2G spectrum and coal blocks.

4. Empowering the marginalized:

  • The RTI law has helped empower the poorest and most marginalized sections of the society to access their basic rights and entitlements, even in the absence of effective grievance redress mechanisms to address service delivery failures.
  • National assessments have shown that a large proportion of the RTI applications are filed by the poorest and the most marginalised.
  • Eg: The RTI Act has been used to hold government departments accountable for the delivery of foodgrains and social security benefits.

5. Empowering people:

  • People have used the RTI law to question the highest offices of the country.
  • Eg: The Prime Minister’s Office has been queried about the expenditure of the PM CARES Fund set up to provide relief during disasters like the current pandemic.

6. Deepening democracy:

  • The RTI law has enhanced people’s participation in the democratic process and has allowed the citizens to assert their citizenship.
  • The right to information would be key to strengthening participatory democracy and ushering in people-centred governance.

Issues:

  • The article laments the recent amendments to the law and events, which it claims can have a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of the law and the institutions governing the law.

Amendment to RTI act:

  • The 2019 amendments to the RTI Act has done away with the statutory protection of fixed tenure and high status conferred on the information commissioners.
  • The new amendment allows the Central Government to determine the tenure and salaries of all information commissioners.
  • This would have a negative impact on the independence of the information commissioners.
  • Information Commissions at the Centre and in the States are the final adjudicators empowered to act against violations of the RTI Act.

Lack of timely appointments:

  • The governments have not been appointing information commissioners in a timely manner.
  • Despite Supreme Court orders to fill all vacancies, six out of 11 posts of commissioners are currently vacant in the CIC, including that of the chief.
  • Eight State Information Commissions are functioning without a chief. Two commissions — Tripura and Jharkhand — are totally defunct with no commissioners.
  • This has severely impeded the functioning of commissions.
  • Vacancies in Information Commissions lead to large backlogs of appeals/complaints and long delays in the disposal of cases, effectively frustrating the people’s right to know.

Way forward:

  • The right to question is the hallmark of a democracy and any weakening of the RTI law or its implementation does not augur well for a democratic republic.

Source: TH

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