By Sushil Kutty
October 12 marked 16 years of the RTI Act. The Act supposedly empowered “we the people” with the right to seek information so that governments could be held accountable. The baseline property was that “all citizens shall have the right to information.” Did the Act guarantee that absolute right? According to one report, the Act was “weakened absolutely and decisively.”
This, despite the fact that common Indians have resolutely sought and fought to protect their RTI. There were repeated attempts to erode the Act via amendments. In fact, some members of the new tribe of RTI Activists had to pay with their lives. Several were burned alive!
What did the governments do? Mostly nothing. If anything, they stood in the way. No government, Centre or state, cared to bring in an amendment to strengthen the RTI! What about the Modi Government?
It has, says a report penned by an RTI activist, “diabolically planned and moved a set of targeted and fashioned amendments to the RTI Act which will not only undermine one part of the Act but structurally weaken the independence and authority of the only body that gives it teeth, thereby nullifying the entire Act.”
So, the next time Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds forth from a podium where he is not just a voice, remember that his Government has much to hide and this is what it’s doing diligently and with a single-minded purpose. Home Minister Amit Shah may differ on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “democratic” or not, but on the RTI Act, he’s assuredly not democratic.
Nobody in the Modi Government is. The RTI Act did not spawn a bureaucratic set-up to implement the RTI law. For that we should be grateful. There’s an unspoken “omerta” practiced by the bureaucrat, he is a secretive animal and doesn’t like “sharing and openness.” That’s because he has a vested interest in keeping his mouth shut.
The RTI Act sought to overcome this impediment by giving the Information Commission the mandate to part with information as per the RTI Act. The commission has the power to fine officials who refuse to answer an RTI query. This was, like somebody said, “a blast of fresh air and sunshine”.
Information started flowing freely. Today, nearly 70 lakh people use the RTI every year. And powerful vested interests are always worried of an RTI query involving them hitting the deck. They do everything under their control to stop, quash, and hide. They hold out threats. They bribe. They cajole. They browbeat.
When everything fails, they kill! According to one report more than 70 RTI seekers have been murdered so far. But that hasn’t stopped the flow of RTI applications. People know of the “independent authority” they can send their RTI to. No other law in the country is more enervating than the RTI Act. Yet, there is no let-up on attempts to dilute and thwart it.
For the RTI Act to be truly effective, it needs to be ensured that the Information Commission and its workforce are allowed to carry out their duties without fear or favour, “independently and with complete autonomy.” There was a demand to elevate the Commission’s status to that of the Election panel, but nobody in power cared to give it much thought.
Today, there’s the fleeting thought that the RTI Act was enacted to be just another law, one among the many that grace the Constitution of India. One which can be trotted out and throttled by Government and government functionaries, ministers and even the Prime Minister of India, who is himself part of the cabal that puts ‘Omerta’ over RTI.
The ‘Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2021’, prepared by Satark Nagrik Sangathan, examined the performance of 29 commissions, and found that several were non-functional and working at reduced capacity. Many posts were lying vacant including that of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). This was “particularly concerning given the humanitarian crisis brought about by COVID-19.”
There was urgent need for information on hospital beds, essential drugs and ventilators. Information dissemination on relief measures of governments to combat the pandemic was critical, especially to the poor and marginalized who were dependent on the Government for healthcare, food and social security. But with a weakened RTI Act, there were problems and entitlements and corruption thrived. (IPA Service)