Information is Power

CS must fulfill his promise of making RTI digital
A man bows to focus on the headline on Greater Kashmir's print edition at a newspaper vendor's stall in Srinagar's Lalchowk. [Image for representational purpose only]
A man bows to focus on the headline on Greater Kashmir's print edition at a newspaper vendor's stall in Srinagar's Lalchowk. [Image for representational purpose only] File/GK

Most people believe that wealth is everything. They believe that money can do all wonders, but it is not money or wealth that is most superior. The reality is that information is the actual  driving force behind almost all of the events that happen in the world, both fictional and real.

Unless we don’t have correct information, we won’t be able to do anything. Most of the democratic nations across the world have now declared that accessing information is the right of the citizens.

The idea of RTI (Right to Information) Act in India was floated by the former Prime Minister of India, Shri V. P. Singh in 1989. His National Front Govt which lasted for a very brief time, could not enact legislation on Right to Information.

Atal Behari Vajpayee enacted Freedom of Information Act in 2002, but that law was not operationalized and finally Congress led UPA-II Govt came up with Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005. In its coming, it promised transparency, accountability and good governance in its wake. It’s time to question now, whether the governance is good, whether the transparent is transparent, or just translucent, and whether the accountable is accountable enough.

Constitutional and legal standing

The Right to Information is stemmed under Article 19 of the constitution, which says that every citizen of a country has got freedom of information and speech, but unless a citizen doesn’t have correct information he or she cannot express freely or speak what is right ? This was also upheld by Supreme Court of India in late 1970’s in the matter of Raj Narayan V/S State of Uttar Pradesh

RTI empowers the citizen to seek any information from public authority. And of course, why shouldn’t it be? After all, the money used in and by the government departments is the taxpayer’s money which they have a full right to know details about.

In my understanding, a simple abidance of the Right to Information Act will solve many purposes at once. Non-compliance of the RTI Act makes sayings like “theories are different from practical” come true. The RTI Act beautifully covers each and every fact-situation and lays down simple guidelines to be followed. We as citizens never come to know that the genesis of the matter, the RTI Act, 2005 is only not being followed in letter and spirit. Let me put forth some examples for you.

Voluntary disclosure of information

Section 4 (1) of RTI Act 2005 mandates that every public authority shall maintain all its records “duly catalogued and indexed”. Moreover, it also says that all due records which are appropriate to be computerized should be done so, such that these records are easily accessible. The last line of Section 4(b) establishes that all publications of records by government authorities should be updated every year. Section 4 (2) says that such availability of information to the public is mandated in a Suomotu form so that the public has minimum resort to filing an RTI application to retrieve information. Unfortunately even after 17 years of enactment of RTI , public authorities don’t make voluntary disclosure of information on their official websites and with the result citizens are forced to even seek beneficiary list of PM Awas Yojna or Old Age Pension from Govt offices and these offices make unnecessary delays in providing the same to RTI applicants.

Now, this is a basic understanding that if updated information is already available on websites of government departments, then citizens will never have to go through the process of filing an RTI, and redundant applications will never increase the burden and backlog of designated Public Information Officers- PIO’s.

Applicant not to give any reason

RTI is a beautiful law. The applicant is not required to give any reason to PIO why he or she wants the information. The section 6(2) of the RTI Act, 2005 reads:

“An applicant making a request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him.

This also shows how RTI can be such a powerful tool in the hands of a citizen and this mandate seeks to increase the trust between Governing Bodies and the ‘Aam Aadmi.’ Moreover, this truly encapsulates the axiom that says “Democracy is a government of the people, for the people and by the people.”

Furthermore, one of the most important is Section 8 of the RTI Act, 2005. Section 8(1) lays down certain criteria under which disclosure of information may not be done, for example, anything that affects sovereignty and integrity of the country, or something which is confidential with respect to intellectual property, or information received in confidence from a foreign country (and other criteria as mentioned in the said act). However, a caution here is that the excuse of ‘threat to internal security’ should not be used as a garb for non-disclosure every time. Few years back  Govt rejected an RTI application which inquired about the usage of PM-CARES funds. This non-disclosure is totally foul play and is a valid iteration of how RTI is not as effective as it might seem when it comes to ground reality.

Online RTI

It is a sad reality that in Jammu & Kashmir, we still have an offline, postal manner of filing RTI applications. One has to go and buy an IPO (Indian Postal Order) from a GPO (note that IPOs are not available in all Post Offices), and thus creates a huge hassle for the applicant. Thus, it is high time that the RTI filing process goes digital as soon as possible. There are a number of reasons for the same. Some of them being:


Speedy implementation of receipt and reply for the asked information.


Ease of access and simplification of the process of application.


Upholding the principles of “go green” and saving paper and other resources which emit carbon in their production.

However, even in the wake of expected digitisation, we have to keep in mind the people who may not be able to help themselves; that is, the illiterate and the group of people who don’t have access to modern devices and internet services. Thus, it is humbly suggested that Common Service Centres should be given responsibility of helping out these people to file RTI and thus, for this, CSC centres themselves should also be made aware of the process of filing an RTI under the substance and procedures of RTI Act, 2005. Khidmat Centres in J&K may also be trained to facilitate one and all.

Some problems

Seeing the provisions of the RTI Act 2005 as explained above, we see a glimpse that the RTI seems like an ideal law when it comes to transparency and accountability. However, the only way that RTI Act 2005 can be revolutionary and ideal in real life is if a response is provided in a fixed and time-bound manner, failing which the government official concerned would be penalised. Due to insufficient number of PIOs and ineffective record management systems, often the backlog keeps increasing, eventually leading to a huge number of delays plus we don’t have a State Information Commission (SIC) in operation in J&K post article 370 abrogation. For more than 3 years RTI second appeals from J&K are listed before Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi which is already overburdened with cases. The appeals are listed for hearing after 15 to 16 months. This is so frustrating as the appeals would be heard and disposed of in two to three months in the erstwhile J&K State Information Commission (JKSIC).

Conclusion

Being a student of Law, at National Law Institute University Bhopal, I understand the importance of the RTI Act, 2005, and as an intern with RTI Movement, I am putting my best hopes forward that many reforms are to come to make this Act more inclusive and effective in the near future. I appeal the Govt to make all the records digital and make voluntary disclosure of information, give frequent training to PIOs and facilitate filing of RTIs through a digital platform. In fact Chief Secretary Dr A K Mehta has promised to make all the offline services online by January 15th 2023, I am sure this includes RTI as well.

Lavya Bhasin is a student of law at National Law Institute University Bhopal

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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