The Right to Information Act which came into force on October 12th 2005 is now over a decade old. Over the decade however the greater challenge has been the actual implementation of the Act. Unless the RTI Act is further strengthened Good Governance, Transparency in the Administration and Zero Tolerance to Corruption will never be a reality. The Right to Information Act was enacted to ensure transparency and accountability in governance. But the manner in which the government is subtly subverting the Right to Information Act is a matter of concern.
The Right to Information is derived from our fundamental Right of expression under Article 19 of our Constitution. If we do not have information on how our Government and public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. This has been reiterated by various Supreme Court judgments since 1977.
The Right to Information Act has been hailed as the hallmark of our democracy. The Act aims at making the government transparent and more accountable. The effective use of it would, in the long run, curb corruption. Right to Information Act has become a powerful tool in exposing corruption at top places in the government.
A well informed citizenry, transparency, and free flow of information are the very foundations of any successful democratic society. India may be publicly acclaimed as the world’s largest democracy but the ground reality is that we are now ebbing away to an autocratic regime. Democracy and non-transparency in the functioning of the Government cannot co-exist. Besides freedom of speech without access to information is meaningless.
Narendra Modi rode to power on his vow of ‘Acche din’ for the Aam Aadmi and Good governance. But after assuming office in May 2014 the Prime Minister has not uttered a word on the RTI Act, leave alone on strengthening it. His then enthusiasm for freedom has been waning away and we now have an emerging culture of surveillance and secrecy. For the common man, getting correct and accurate information under the Right to Information Act is today becoming a far cry.
As part of the ploy to subvert the RTI Act many of the Information Commissions across the country have been kept dysfunctional. Even those Information Commissioners appointed like in Goa are very ‘pliable’ agents of the ruling BJP.
As the Right to Information Act requires that the Information Commissioners have to be persons of Eminence in public life, Independent minded persons who do not succumb to political pulls and pressures need to be appointed as Information Commissioners to ensure the proper implementation of the Right to Information Act. If Yes-men manage to creep into as Information Commissioners it would be an exercise in futility ending up as white elephants that we would rather be better off without.
Under Section 4 of the RTI Act all public authorities are duty bound to regularly display on their website a wide range of information, including all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect the public. This proviso in the law was enacted to reduce the need for filing individual RTI applications. But this mandatory duty has been blatantly flouted by the authorities with most government websites themselves dysfunctional or not updated. What is the use of Right to freedom of speech when the people do not have their rightful access to information?
The Judiciary needs to step in to ensure that the Government complies with the mandate of the Right to Information Act. But with the Courts themselves also averse to parting with information and with its functioning largely under a veil of secrecy, we are stonewalled.
But we need to battle it out and cannot allow the RTI Act to be choked by the government to a slow death. Steps need to be taken to strengthen the transparency regime that was sought to be established as envisaged by the RTI Act. Effective implementation of the RTI Act requires political commitment from the very top. Officials denying information or giving misleading and distorted information need to be severely penalized.
Governance by cloak of secrecy and opaqueness needs to be strongly resisted. It cannot be a hush-hush regime. We need to dismantle those walls of secrecy that continue to hound transparency and good governance despite the Right to Information Act now being in place for over a decade. In those very own words of Narendra Modi ‘Sabko sanmati de bhagwan’ (Let good sense prevail).