More than 90 countries in the world today have introduced Right to Information (RTI) legislations to safeguard people´s access to public information. But the implementation part has not been smooth. While the causes for weak law enforcement could be multiple, political commitments at the center (government level) and public awareness at the grassroots level could be the keys for fruitful exercise of RTI legislations. This article seeks to take stock of RTI implementation situation in India, with brief highlights on South Asian scenario.
India introduced Right to Information Act in 2005. The six years´ time may be much too small compared to India’s experience with Independence and democracy, but India seems to have achieved much in the realm of access to information.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) held a South Asian learning program on Right to Information during the second and third week of November 2011. The program brought together RTI activists from five South Asian nations—Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka—to make a comparative assessment of the state of affairs vis-à-vis RTI in the region, with particular focus on India. The program came at a time when Nepal was seeking ways to ensure effective practice of its RTI legislation (2007). Elsewhere in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka people are lobbying for RTI. The success and failure vary in these countries though.
Among other things, the program took stock of RTI laws in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It defined the term ´information,´ dwelled on RTI jurisdiction; the system applied for the handling of information requests, including timeline, rejection, and the matters relating to information held by a third party. Issue of punitive measures to violators and protection of whistleblowers was duly raised.
SHARING OF EXPERIENCES
Our experience sharing started with Justice Ajit Prakash Shah, the former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court. At a time when “judiciary itself was somewhat reluctant” in acknowledging the spirit of RTI, he recalled how he and his team worked to make a liberal interpretation of what was private (confidential) and public nature of information. “Once someone asked us for information about the pending cases in Delhi High Court,” he said. “Our officials initially denied, but I thought this information deserved to go to the public,” he added. As he revealed, the Court did not only provide the data shortly, but also settled most of the pending cases soon.
RTI could be used in a range of areas of public interest, as shown by Indian villagers.
Shailesh Gandhi, Commissioner with India´s Central Information Commission, agreed that the lack of systematic record keeping stood as a “major challenge” in promoting access to information. “Tapping the modern developments in information and communications technology could help us a lot,” he said.
Officials at the Department of Personnel and Training under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, which also works as the RTI nodal agency of the Government of India, seemed to view RTI positively. Anuradha Chagti, director of RTI Division, called RTI Act “landmark” for “nothing else was so full of impact.” Officials said that there were some 600 thousand requests for information during last year alone. To facilitate free flow of information, they have now appointed some 30 trained Public Information Officers (PIOs) within the office.
RTI practices are not without challenges. Shekhar Singh, a veteran campaigner for RTI in India, informed us that about one dozen RTI activists were killed nationwide following the introduction of the Act. But such cowardly acts have not deterred the rights activists to pursue their goals. As regards the use of RTI, “exploiting the non-classified categories of information” is what can lead us to “empowerment of grassroots,” according to Dr R N Das, former State Chief Information Commissioner of Gujarat. “Using RTI for sensational purpose will only serve negative attitudes.”
EFFORTS IN GUJARAT VILLAGES
In a bid to acquire first hand knowledge of how the concept of RTI or citizen´s access to information could be treated proactively even at the lowest rung of the government, we flew to the city of Baroda from Delhi and drove to some rural villages. This is an area not far from the spot where an unexpected communal riot had cost the lives of 3000 people in 2000. Hundreds were maimed and hundreds of others suffered loss of properties.
Government had announced compensation or some relief package but not all the affected people could receive that. Aslam Diwan, coordinator of Nagarik Adhikar Kendra, a local NGO at Kalol Village, said, “We decided to use RTI Act as a tool. We advised and helped people to file appropriate information requests with the concerned authorities which ultimately proved effective, then most of the affected people got their share of relief package.”
In Vejalpur Village, local authorities themselves seemed to be convinced of the value of voluntary public disclosure. They have turned the entire office walls into public notice boards, telling citizens about the office and the various facilities people were entitled to receive. “Initially, even we were not much open about giving information,” said Chirag N Patel, chief of the Panchayat. “But later we changed ourselves; if we are here to serve people why hide things?”
For Jitendra Patel, chief of neighboring Malav Village, RTI has helped to unearth an interesting episode. Nearly 10 million rupees due to Malav Panchayat had been stalled during the past five years. “Papers at the higher authority indicate that the money had been cleared but none in our office has received it,” Patel said. He said the village was now working to collect papers to begin a process of appeal for more information, so that the ones who are ´hands in glove´ could be identified and punished. RTI could also be used in a range of areas concerned with public livelihood. And the locals are all set to do this.
These experiences from India could be a sorce of inspiration for Nepal to do more in the field of RTI, which, unfortunately, is still struggling to gain momentum here.
The writer is Head, Department of English, RR Campus, Kathmandu.