Is the Right to Information (RTI) giving Right Information?

The RTI Act came to empower citizens and promote transparency but has it really delivered its promises asks Dr SS Mantha, former chairman, AICTE


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Freedom of speech and expression, enshrined in Article 19, 20, 21 and 22 is a fundamental right that the Constitution of India guarantees. However, people cannot exercise a right to freedom of speech and expression unless they have the right information. In a way, right to information is a built-in feature in these articles. RTI act came about in 2005 to buttress the fundamental right with an objective to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in a real sense.

Has it really delivered? Are private organizations like Amazon, Flipkart, Vodafone and others not democratic Institutions? Is corruption limited only to government establishments? There are a number of private organizations that do business with the government. A classic model will evolve, where one side of the equation gives out information may be in unconnected sequences and the other part is shielded from giving out any information at all. Citizens can go in circles, collect the dots as they are doled out and connect the missing dots the way they like. Enough material for developing an artificial intelligence based video game. Is it not pertinent to ask why they are excluded from RTI?  Is this a case of all men being equal, some are more equal?

Right to equality under article 14 to 18 ensures equality before law, prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, gender or place of birth, and equality of opportunity. Right against exploitation under articles 23, 24 prohibits all forms of forced labour, child labour and trafficking of human beings. Right to freedom of religion under articles 25 to 28, includes freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion. Cultural and educational rights under articles 29, 30 preserve the right of any section of citizens to conserve their culture, language or script. Right to constitutional remedies under articles 32 to 35 allow enforcement of fundamental rights. Right to privacy, part of article 21, protects life and liberty of the citizens. A great constitution indeed to govern our lives.

A reality check would reveal that we are anything but equal, we discriminate on almost all grounds, forced labour, child labour and human trafficking keeps rearing its head all the time, we believe that our freedom is more important than that of the others and we are private citizens only as long as everyone else is public. Courts, as hard-pressed as they are, deliver justice to only those who can possibly approach them, leaving rest of them to suffer the ignominies and inequalities.

Admittedly RTI empowers citizens. However, we often see information being given in bits and pieces, delayed, and withheld on various counts. By the time information that can be useful reaches the citizens, could actually be rendered useless. The entire process of litigation or redressal will have to wait till all information is sequenced and collated. One has to now approach the courts and it is quite possible that something springs from the Blue Book during the course of a hearing, rendering the case, a subject of analytical jurisprudence testing the mettle of the advocates one engages. Contextual notes made on files would possibly be made to be seen in contexts that never existed when the act purportedly was acted out rendering the whole exercise futile.

There is a flip side to the RTI story. As it is, seeking information that one can actually use is not herculean enough, frivolous information is often repeatedly sought to harass, malign and defame. Statistics often hide more than they reveal. Data obtained, is often presented in such a way that the observations are erroneous, lead to twisted outcomes and general loss of credibility all happening on an RTI day. A classic case of harassment was when the CIC ordered that the petitioner search a Government office himself, for the information he sought when he claimed was not given to his satisfaction, even after several reminders. The petitioner approached the said office, heady with the order, after office hours and laid claim to searching the office himself. The beleaguered officer convinced him with great difficulty that he needs to come the next day to do his bidding when the office opened in the morning.

Having purchased some breathing time and composed as he was by then, collecting his wits as it was, had to also ensure that his large office was actually shielded from being subjected to placement of papers rather than a search that yielded papers.  However it was beyond him to ensure that such was not the case. Hitting upon an out of box idea, he carefully ensured placement of several video cameras throughout the office before the search began. The petitioner, obviously on top of the moon in the belief that he could bring a government officer to knees, was taken aback when a camera followed him wherever he went and promptly abandoned the search. Obviously, the order never said cameras couldn’t follow. The moot point in this story is what have we brought RTI to? Any new system, rule or order must facilitate and not throttle. In the name of transparency are we using the grey matter to create more restrictions?

Some RTI petitions kill the spirit of the Act itself. For instance when a resident of Hyderabad sought details from Andhra Pradesh governor on how many times he visited temples in a day and also copy of the dinner menu hosted at his official residence. An RTI doesn't really have an age limit. Legally, even a six-year-old can file one. A 9-year-old Pranav filed an RTI that forced the Delhi police to register his stolen bike. He even asked for a Rs. 2500 compensation, and demanded action against the assistant sub-inspector. In 2009, a Pune RTI activist revealed how local politicians were using the RTI to spy on him, and try to stop him before he revealed their illegal activities. Even bizarre was when an applicant literally asked where exam papers for the Aligarh Muslim University were printed, and where they were checked. While the RTI was brought in for transparency, some geniuses are turning it into a joke, like someone literally asked the Prime Minister's office if "achhe din" is here. Can you imagine what the response was “work in progress” or like, when a class VI girl asked if MK Gandhi ever got an actual ‘Father of the Nation’ title. What was even more awesome was that this was in 2012, when the Congress party was in power. The question went to the PMO, the Ministry of Home Affairs and then to the National Archives of India. Unfortunately for all concerned, no one had an answer.

Even astonishing was when, to an RTI query on what a single 'Clean Ganga' meeting cost, the reply given was 40 lakh Rupees and more. Rs 75,000 on "floral decorations", accommodation of guests: Rs 26.7 lakh, Officials' travel: Rs 8.8 lakh, Advertising the event: Rs 5.1 lakh, Other arrangements: Rs 2.3 lakh. What was actually spent on cleaning the Ganga was not asked and not given. Obviously, political brownie points were sought to be settled.

Is it time we relook at the Act itself? A gap analysis for all our acts will put each one of them in the right perspective. An analysis of what was intended and what is being delivered will be revealing in itself. A debate that empowers the citizen in a real sense is in order for the day. It doesn’t matter if the debate results in a new law or actually repeals several of the existing ones.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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