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Right To Information - A Path to Swaraj
By Shailesh Gandhi

We define democracy as a rule by the people, for the people and of the people. This implies that elected representatives have to fulfill this mandate and Public servants and the elected representatives are accountable to the people. Only this can lead to a true democracy.

However, in most cases, those who wield power feel that they know best and the people must not, in their own interest, know the "how and what" of governance. This is a serious lapse in the way democracies have functioned, and was somehow missed in the Governance structure of most Nations. This leads to a situation where a lot of arbitrariness or corruption becomes a norm in the Governance structure.

Most power structures - in Government or outside - become instruments to service the needs of particular sections. In this situation, organizations, whether Governmental, Private or of the NGO sector, have usually become vehicles for serving the interests of narrow sections. This leads to a predominance of 'public interest' action by the State as well as private organizations, being directed more to the benefit of the advantaged sections while disadvantaged sections are left behind.

What then is the way out of this? If we conclude that most organizations - including political parties - will mimic each other, and are unlikely to work for better governance in the short-term, is there no hope? The answer is empowerment of the people. And a key route to empowerment is information.

The primary human rights or constitutional source of the right to information is the fundamental right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, although some constitutions also provide separate, specific protection for the right to freedom of information and access to information held by the State. In a more general sense, it can also be derived from the recognition that democracy, and indeed the whole system for protection of human rights, cannot function properly without freedom of information. In that sense, it is a foundational human right, upon which other rights depend.

However, we must also recognize that liberal thoughts about democracy and recognition of human rights as fundamental to the development of human beings are a fairly recent development. Sweden has been an early starter and has recognized the Citizen's Right To Information for over two centuries! Various Countries have begun to realize the importance of this mainly in the last four decades. The terms "Right To Information" (RTI) and "Freedom of Information" (FOA) have usually been used almost like synonyms. Presently over 50 countries have an Act to enforce this. However, our extremely poor Justice delivery system denies any real justice to citizens.

Several campaigns within India have helped to establish Right To Information Acts in nine states. Around 1996 villagers in Tilonia in Rajasthan under the leadership of Aruna Roy demanded to see the copies of bills of work done in their village, since they wanted to expose corruption. This struggle led to information being provided and a wider movement for Right To Information. In Maharashtra, which has one of the best Acts, Anna Hazare was largely responsible for forcing the Government to concede the demand for a good Right To Information Act.

In India, Supreme Courts have, in various rulings in 1977 and later, held that the Right To Information flows from the Fundamental Rights of Citizens under Article 19 of Freedom of Expression. To express opinions, it is necessary to be informed and hence Courts have ruled that the Right To Information is also a Fundamental Right. In a landmark judgment in 1982, the Indian Supreme Court expressed its opinion in this matter in very clear terms.

However, the problem remained as to how Citizens could enforce this right. In how much time should information be provided? How should the information be requested? Who is responsible for providing the information? These vexatious issues had no laid down solutions. Primarily a good RTI Act does the following:

  1. Defined specifies request fees. which are Rs. 10 for an application and Rs.20 for appeals in Maharashtra,- which must accompany a request for information.
  2. Defines who will give the information and in what time frame; -presently 15 working days, extendable by another 15 working days.
  3. Defines information which may not be given - however these exclusions should be minimum and this is always a contentious issue.
  4. Defines a redressal mechanism if information is not provided properly.

While nine Indian states currently have Right to Information Acts, presently a seesaw struggle is on to get this Act for the whole Country. An act called the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2002. It was a very weak Act and was not implemented since the rules were not framed. The present Government had promised a good Right to Information Act, and in principle the Prime Minister had agreed to an Act which would truly empower Citizens. Various details were also agreed to by the National Advisory Council and the Government. However, some law ministry bureaucrats made a few vital changes before it was tabled in Parliament on 23 December 2004, which would make the Act worthless.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee is now reviewing the Act, and about a dozen people were invited to make presentations before it, including Shekhar Singh, Aruna Roay, Jean Dreze, Anna Hazare. This writer was also invited to make an independent presentation before the Committee. We are hopeful of a passage of a good act for the whole country in the current year. Such an Act will empower Citizens to act as an enforcer of good governance.

The hope lies in using and reinforcing the majesty of the individual Citizen. If individual Citizens are empowered to ensure greater accountability and transparency in governance, it can bring about a major change. There has been no vehicle available for individual citizens to impact the governance structure. In a system reeking with corruption and becoming increasingly insensitive to the problems of the disadvantaged Citizenry, the Right To Information has shown promise of empowering Citizens to get accountability and act as an enforcer of good governance. The Right to Information is available to every Citizen, and can be used by individual Citizens from their own houses. It does not require getting together in groups. Since Citizens operate as individuals, they do not have to make the compromises required in maintaining the groups. Citizens, without any organization, reinforce the principle of the Individual Citizen being at the centre of Democracy. Whenever, there are major issues exposing lack of governance in terms of proper public policy, or corruption, Citizens will come together on a particular issue. The strength of this Common good will build a stronger and more ethical Civil Society.

Only then will Swaraj have dawned on India.

Shailesh Gandhi is part of the National Campaign for Right To Information which is trying to build public opinion across India for a good Right to Information Act. He has written a booklet on the Maharashtra Right To Information Act, which can be downloaded from www.satyamevajayate.info