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Overall trend towards lesser transparency despite strong Right to Information law

By Bharat Dogra 

India has a strong Right to Information (RTI) law that has been considered a model law by many countries. Despite this, in recent times, there have been several complaints that RTI applications are leading to rather evasive replies that are not very helpful leading to more need for appeals to get proper information. Unfortunately, however, even after appeals the proper information is frequently not becoming available in time, one reason being that the arrangement for timely responding to appeals has been weakened at many places. While the situation may not be the same in all the states, an overall decline in the ability to get timely and proper information has been noticed widely.
This is very unfortunate, for at one time India had appeared to be emerging as a leader in RTI-driven transparency. While the situation at the turn of the century was that RTI laws were being enacted or seriously considered in several countries, two factors added to the strength of the RTI scene in India. One was of course the relatively stronger law that emerged here after a lot of efforts and fiddling with much weaker versions of this law. Secondly, a remarkable part of the situation in India was that the entire movement here had emerged from a strong grassroots struggle of workers and peasants in Rajasthan for information relating to their daily survival needs. They were asking for information relating to drought relief or rural employment work, for payment of legal minimum wages for such work or for the delivery of subsidized food ration to the poor which was of critical importance for keeping away hunger from their huts. This movement initiated by the MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan or Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants) was soon joined by several other organizations and movements in India and dharnas or sit-ins were organized in several parts of Rajasthan to demand RTI. It was only after several protests and much delay that the Rajasthan government accepted the idea of right to information in the right spirit. Meanwhile efforts emerged in other states like Maharashtra too to demand RTI.
Senior activists from the Rajasthan movement such as Aruna Roy harnessed the strength of their grassroots movement to create a national campaign committee for people’s right to information. This had very senior journalists like Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjee and Prabhash Joshi , highly respected activists like Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and K.G.Kannabiran and those with rich administrative and academic experience like Harsh Mander and Shekhar Singh.
Thus a national campaign called NCPRI combining grassroots efforts with efforts to reach governments as well as influential people in civil society, academia and media took shape. This first led to some state level laws and finally to a RTI law for the entire country (2005).
This law started being used very extensively within a short time, hence testifying to the need for such a law. RTI almost became a household word among significant sections of the population and people started looking forward to using it in the context of several problems they faced, leading to interesting results. The government was also called upon by the legislation to suo motto make available a lot of its information, leading to the entire system becoming much more transparent than before. All this certainly contributed to the betterment of democracy in India.
However more recently some of these gains have been eroded. The entire system created by the RTI law depends to a significant extent on the functioning of the central and state Information Commissions. Unfortunately these have been weakened and understaffed so that their ability to ensure proper implementation of RTI has declined. An amendment in 2019 of the RTI law increased union government’s control over information commissioners. Then the Digital Personal Protection Act enacted this year has made it more difficult to get some information needed for social audits as well as some information relating to powerful and influential persons.
Several rules which are made regarding the implementation of RTI laws have also been such as to make it more difficult to use the RTI law in various ways.
The overall trend towards lesser transparency is also evident in less than enthusiastic suo motto disclosure of information. When efforts at higher levels to pursue steps in the direction of greater transparency are missing, the overall system also tends to fall into the same pattern of lesser rather than higher transparency.
Certainly the need for transparency is increasing in the present day world and people’s efforts to make our systems more transparent must continue and must be strengthened at various levels.
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The writer was the first Convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information and has contributed several articles, booklets, primers and books on RTI

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