Sunday, May 17, 2015


Ten years after the Right to Information Act was passed by the Rajya Sabha on May 12, 2005, its implementation remains inefficient and transparency and accountability seem to be under threat in India.
Experts cite poor record-keeping practices within the bureaucracy, lack of infrastructure and staff for running Information Commissions, and dilution of supplementary laws such as the one for whistleblower protection as reasons for this.
Madabhushi Sridhar, Information Commissioner at the Central Information Commission, says: “In my office, my secretary doubles up as the stenographer, registrar, deputy registrar and personal assistant who must also respond to letters my office receives. Compare this with the kind of staff support courts receive. With such poor staffing how can we be expected to discharge our responsibilities efficiently?”
He points to the problems posed by missing files in government offices. “The information sought by citizens can be provided only if the records are maintained properly. If the RTI has to succeed, then the Public Records Act must be implemented,” he says.
Inefficient implementation has delayed the settlement of information appeals. An October 2014 report brought out by the RTI Assessment and Analysis Group (RAAG) showed a waiting period of up to 60 years in Madhya Pradesh and up to 18 years in West Bengal, calculated on the basis of current rates of pendency in Information Commissions. “In less than 3 per cent of cases, penalties were imposed on government departments denying information sought,” Amrita Johri of Satark Nagarik Sangathan says.
What the RTI Act has managed to achieve in the last decade is to unleash a silent citizen’s movement for government accountability across the country. The RAAG report found that on an average, 4-5 million applications are filed under the Act every year. But this has not been without its negative consequences. Forty activists who had demanded crucial information, with the potential to expose corruption within the government, had been killed. This has necessitated supplementary laws such as whistleblower protection laws to ensure protection for information activists.
Diluted laws
But the Whistleblowers Protection (Amendment), Bill, 2015, passed by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday has renewed concerns regarding the vulnerability of information seekers making disclosures in the public interest. “The original intention of the whistleblower protection law was to protect citizens disclosing information regarding wrongdoing in the larger public interest. But the proposed amendments have turned the law into a ‘Whistleblower Prevention and Victimisation Act’,” quips Venkatesh Nayak, Access to Information programme coordinator at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The amendments do not provide immunity to whistleblowers, making them liable for prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, he says.
The Bill completely dilutes the provisions of the earlier law removing everything exempted under Section 8 (1) of the RTI Act from within the ambit of whistle-blowing. “If the government wanted to ensure that sensitive information regarding national security, integrity, etc., is not made public, then the law could have been appropriately amended to ensure additional safeguards or by making provisions for a mechanism for confidential disclosure. What is sought to be done now is a blanket ban on disclosures containing sensitive information,” Anjali Bharadwaj of Satark Nagarik Sangathan says.
Empowering citizens
Despite these developments, the culture of transparency brought about by the RTI Act in the past decade has now made it easier for citizens to access parliamentary proceedings online, and track proceedings of various State legislatures. However, the legislatures in the Northeast and lower courts are yet to put up documents regarding their proceedings proactively, activists say.
Commenting on the rise of an entire political movement on the basis of the movement for transparency and accountability in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party since 2011, Shankar Singh, a founder-member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan, says, “There is something about the nature of political power that corrupts people no matter how dedicated they might be to the cause of transparency. That is why we need to continue to empower ordinary people with tools like the RTI so they can hold those holding political power accountable.”