It took India 82 years to transit from an opaque system of governance, legitimised by the colonial Official Secrets Act, to one where citizens can demand the right to information. The enactment of the Right to Information Act 2005 marked a significant shift for Indian democracy, for, the greater the access to information, the greater will be the responsiveness of the government to community needs.
The basic objective of the RTI Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the government and make our democracy work for the people in the real sense. The Act empowered the citizens to get information from any ‘public authority’. Right to information is derived from our fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution. If we do not have information on how our government and public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. Democracy revolves around the basic idea of citizens being at the centre of governance and the freedom of the press is an
essential element for a democracy to function. It is obvious that for a free press, it is essential to ensure that citizens are informed. Thus, it clearly flows from this, that the citizens’ Right to Know is of paramount importance in a democracy.
Right to information is inherent in our Constitution in the form of Article 19(1)(a) under Fundamental Rights—freedom of speech and expression. It has been held in a number of judgements including the Supreme Court judgement in the case of Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India & Others. v. Cricket Association of Bengal & Others. [(1995) 2 SCC 161] that the freedom of speech and expression includes the right to acquire information and disseminate it. However, as the provision was not explicit and as there was no formal mechanism for seeking information, the request for demand for information was rarely entertained sympathetically.
The struggle for Right to Information was started by an organisation called Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan (MKSS) which was founded by activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey in 1990 in Rajasthan. During its struggle for minimum wages and other developmental works, the organisation started the concept of jan-sunwai in which it procured records regarding the work done by government agencies. The details were read out publicly and explained to the local people who verified the wage payments or work done through individual and collective testimonies. This method required access to the government records. However, as there was no formal mechanism for obtaining such documents, the organisation relied on unofficial means or the help from some sympathetic officials for obtaining such records. The first jan-sunwai was held in December, 1994 which underlined the importance of Right to Information and the organisation started demanding amendment in Panchayati Raj Rules which were subsequently amended in July, 1997.
In the meanwhile, National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI)was founded by Aruna Roy and some other activists in 1996 with a mandate to work for bringing in an effective legislation at the Centre as well as the States for providing right to information to the people. Under the pressure of activists as well as international agencies, a number of States enacted their RTI Acts. These were Tamil Nadu (1996), Goa (1997), Madhya Pradesh (1998), Rajasthan (2000), Maharashtra (2000), Karnataka (2000), Delhi (2001), Assam (2002) and erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (2003). A national Bill was placed in the Parliament in June 2000 and was passed as the Freedom of Information Act in 2002, but was not notified.
The ‘Right to Information’ Bill was passed by the Parliament and this Bill was given assent by the
President on June 15, 2005. This law came into force on October 12, 2005 for the whole of India except for the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The benefit of this right is to make every conscious citizen get the information he desires. If a department or organisation denies him the desired information, then the complaint can be lodged against it in the Central Information Commission.
There are a number of reasons for a legal system that provides for access to information. First and foremost, access to information is central to the idea of a democratic society. Governments have a vast amount of power, and power tends to corrupt. In a democratic society, the government should be accountable to the citizens and this is not possible if the citizens do not have information about the functioning of the government. The actions and policies of a government affect the economic interests and personal liberty of individuals that make up a nation. The government, thus, should use this vast power to act for the public good and not for private gain of a few individuals who hold such power. Therefore, an open government allows the people to keep a check on the abuse and misuse of power by the government.
Other than working towards governmental accountability, public disclosure of information furthers the cause of democracy by facilitating people’s participation. It enables the interested citizens to contribute more effectively to the debates on important questions of government policy. Moreover, if the people are to choose their government every five years, they must have information about its performance. Giving people access to government information ensures that people will make an informed choice when they select those who will make policy decisions about their lives.
RTI has been a stepping stone not only in the better implementation of policies but also in designing the policy by securing public involvement so that people are actually able to reap the benefits conferred upon them by these policies. Thus the era of darkness in policy planning is over. Pension scheme, fair price distribution scheme, reservation policy, MGNREGA, etc. are some examples of such policies. This Act has also strengthened the citizen-government partnership. The people are not only the beneficiaries of the developmental activities of the government but are also the agents of change.
The government has also shifted its approach of development to citizen-centric. Without access to the relevant information, a common man cannot think rationally and thus, cannot participate in a meaningful debate on political or economic issues which are of great importance to him to realise his own socio-economic aspirations. It is only after the introduction of RTI Act that we have become a ‘real democracy’. The government has truly become ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’. True democracy is impossible until we recognise the majesty of the individual citizen.
Today it is not the people’s representatives who raise important questions but common people, RTI activists and social organisations who are raising these questions. And what is even better is that not only have they received satisfactory answers but proper action has also been taken on the issues raised by them.
In actual practice, the unrestrained revelation of information can clash with other public interests such as efficient operations of the government, optimum use of limited fiscal resources and the preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information. The costs of compiling and providing information are huge. Moreover, certain operations of the government such as defence, cannot always be open to public scrutiny.
The Right to Information can collide with the Right to Privacy. The protection of privacy principle holds that individuals should, generally speaking, have some control over the use made by others, especially government agencies, of information concerning themselves. Thus, when an applicant seeks access to government records that contain personal information about certain identifiable individuals, these individuals’ right to privacy conflicts with the applicant’s right to information.
By enacting the ‘Right to Information Act’ India has moved from an opaque and arbitrary system of government to the beginning of an era where there is greater transparency and to a system where the citizens will be empowered and become the true centre of power. Only by empowering the ordinary citizen can any nation progress towards greatness and by enacting the Right to Information Act 2005 India has taken a small but significant step towards that goal. The real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all to resist authority when abused. Thus with the enactment of this Act, India has taken a small step towards achieving real Swaraj.
However, with the people’s right to obtain information comes the duty to use this information judiciously and wisely. The Act should not be used as a means to harass the authorities or to further one’s personal gains. Like the government, the citizens of the country too need to be responsible and conduct themselves with dignity. A system providing access to information gives society the chance to further the aim of democracy and lead to an open and fair society.