With the Right to Information (RTI) Act coming into force on 12 October 2005-participatory democracy had come of age in India! It was indeed a red-letter day for the country. The UPA Government that had taken over the reins of power a little over a year earlier, was making good its promise: of ensuring a more transparent and people-centred governance.
The RTI was a significant step in the right direction. After all, democracy is a participatory process and a well-informed citizenry acts as its watchdog. Information dissemination and exchange is an inevitable part of a vibrant democracy. This helps maintain transparency at all levels. Till 2005, transparency was held hostage to red tape largely by an insensitive bureaucracy and an opaque political system!
The Right to Information (RTI) Act is in essence a codification of this important right of citizens. It is derived from our Fundamental Right to Expression under Article 19. Any citizen therefore has the right to know from officialdom all opinions, advice, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to governance. Section 4 of the RTI Act makes it mandatory for a public authority to disseminate certain information proactively. The RTI Act 2005 has enabled citizens to effectively have access to information (including records, documents, memos, e-mails).
The UPA through its commitment to the RTI gave a huge gift to the country! They failed miserably however in their ability to ‘market’ it and the two other rights namely the Right to Education (RTE) and the Right to Food (RTF) which they piloted and ushered in during their ten-year reign. Their inability to highlight their path-breaking achievements was a crucial factor for their massive defeat in the General Elections of 2014. The BJP on the other hand seized the RTI as an opportunity to expose corruption and other chinks of the UPA Government. Thanks to RTI, some corruption in high places was exposed and it ultimately resulted in the undoing of the UPA and particularly the Congress party.
Strangely enough, it is today the BJP and its ilk – who have left no stone unturned to make the RTI as toothless and redundant as possible. Inspite of doing all they can to destroy several Constitutional and other independent statutory bodies in the past five years, some citizens have effectively used the RTI to expose their corrupt and other fraudulent acts. They are therefore mortally afraid of the RTI.
In a hard-hitting Op-ed in the ‘Indian Express’ (26 July 2019), AAP leader Manish Sisodia writes, “ An honest government would never be scared of information being made accessible. Even a corrupt UPA regime deserves credit for introducing RTI in the first place. But the Bharatiya Janata Party, a party that used RTI exposes against the Congress, and has now taken its place in the national political landscape, is ironically, terrified of it. This speaks volumes about the intent of this government. We are entering a disturbing phase, where the wheels of democracy are being forced to stop in their tracks.”
Aruna Roy, the leader of the ‘National Campaign for People's Right to Information’ (NCPRI) and who has been instrumental in the passage of the RTI 2005, went hammer and tongs at the proposed amendments to the RTI and the surreptious manner with which the Government introduced it in the Lok Sabha a few days ago. Roy categorically stated at a Press Conference in Jaipur, “ The bill proposing changes in the Right to Information (RTI) Act is regressive and aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions. It is a matter of grave concern that the amendments to the RTI Act were introduced in complete secrecy and in flagrant violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of the Central government, which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislation," She further added, “owing to the undemocratic way of its introduction", the contents of the draft amendments were not known by MPs, citizens and the media till the bill was circulated to members of the Lok Sabha on the eve of its introduction”.
On 19 July ‘The RTI Amendment Bill, 2019’, was introduced in the Lok Sabha and it was subsequently passed. The new Bill seeks to amend the RTI Act in order to empower the Central Government to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of Information Commissioners. This of course is a subtle way of telling the Information Commissioners “either you toe our line or out you go”! Until now those in the Information Commission were on par with the Election Commission and the Judiciary – with regard to their tenure, salaries etc. Making the members of this independent statutory body, another group of ‘babus’, will in effect undermine the autonomy of the Act. There will be just a few who will be willing to stand up to the brute power of the State if their careers and remuneration are at stake. Until now several of the Information Commissioners were able to deal with queries in an objective way; sought and provided information free of fear or favour and in more ways than one upheld the dignity and the rights of an empowered citizen.
Sadly, 25 July 2019 was a black day for Indian democracy. ‘The RTI Amendment Bill, 2019’was introduced in the Rajya Sabha. Most of the opposition want it to be referred to a ‘Select Committee’ for further scrutiny- but this was rejected by the Government. In the voting that followed the BJD, the TRS and the YSR Congress sided with the Government and provided them with the win they desperately needed. It was extremely tragic for the people of India, that opportunistic politics, lust for power and not wanting to be accountable has destroyed an important instrument which had greatly empowered the citizens of India!
For the BJP, their allies in the NDA and for the Central Government there were five significant orders passed by the Central Information Commission that would have propelled the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2019. Each of these orders clearly exposed the deep level of corruption that has become the DNA of the ruling party and its naked muscle to negate any challenge to their “authority”. During the debate in the Rajya Sabha on the amendments it was Congress leader Jairam Ramesh who highlighted these five orders issued by the CIC. The five cases he mentioned to strengthen his arguments as to why these amendments were being brought in, were the CIC's order on disclosure of Prime Minister's educational qualification; the false claims made by the Prime Minister on bogus ration cards; the CIC's revelation on demonetisation that RBI disapproved it and the then RBI Raghuram Rajan giving the list of top NPA defaulters and value of black money brought back from abroad. Jairam was emphatic in saying, “The timing of the amendment is not so innocuous and innocent. There are five cases that have propelled the government to bring these amendments”. He further alleged that the government was bringing in amendments in the Right to Information Act to take revenge on institutions as it exposes the "false claims" of the government.
Jairam also raised questions on the timing of bringing the amendments to the Bill which mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information. He said between 2003 and 2013, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat (Narendra Modi) would come to the Planning Commission and the body would ask him uncomfortable questions on the state of health and education in Gujarat. “In 2014 the CM of Gujarat who became PM of India had his revenge and abolished the Planning Commission. Today, Prime Minister of India is taking his revenge with for these five cases," he said.
He went on to add that, “These are the embarrassing cases for the government. The case about his educational qualification in Delhi Court. The Prime Minister has claimed four crore bogus ration cards were weeded out by his government whereas the RTI shows that the number of bogus rations cards was actually 2.3 crore. The CIC directed the Prime Minister office about the quantum of black money brought back from abroad. The PMO refused to share the details despite CIC order," The former union minister said that the real reason for the amendments in the Bill was to make the CIC "toothless" and to convert the information body to "Prime Minister office directed body”. He also accused the government of giving misleading statements regarding its claim of strengthening the RTI Act and the CIC.
Sisodia highlights what the RTI has done for democracy since it was made law in 2005 when he says poignantly, “ The wheels were turning in the direction of a deepening of democracy. The measure of progress of any democracy is the level of empowerment of ordinary citizens. When the state seeks to take away power from ordinary citizens, it is at the cost of democracy itself. The RTI movement was born out of the view that people are the masters and the government exist to serve them. For the five-year period after elections concluded, there was no mechanism to hold governments accountable. The RTI plugged this loophole. The RTI has now become the backbone of our democracy”.
With the passing of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha all this is now apparently lost! There is a slight glimmer of hope. The Bill now goes to the President Ram Nath Kovind to give his assent in order that it becomes an Act. Strangely enough, as a former Member of Parliament of the Bharatiya Janata Party, President Kovind was a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice that had minutely and very comprehensively discussed each and every section of the RTI Bill in five sittings before it became an Act in 2005. That Committee held the unanimous view that the Central Information Commission was a vital and core creation under the Act, which would be responsible for the execution of the RTI legislation. It therefore deemed it imperative to confer on the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) and the Information Commissioners the status equivalent to that of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners respectively.
Several RTI activists now plan to petition President Kovind on the matter, requesting him not to give assent to the amendments to the RTI. Whether the President will exercise his objectivity and actually see how the Act is diluted is anyone’s guess. Given the fact that he was a member of a significant committee on the RTI Bill and that he is well-versed on the subject provides one with some measure of hope.
Concerned citizens from all over the country and from all walks of life have been expressing their displeasure of how every facet of Indian democracy is not only being hijacked but being totally destroyed. The way people’s power is being blunted by the current regime is a matter of great concern to all. Social media is also used extensively; the hashtag #SaveRTI has been trending among the top, these past days. Well-known RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj tweets, “Sad day for democracy. The ONE law which empowers people to hold the government to account stands diluted. RTI amendment Bill passed by Parliament. We will now petition the President to return the Bill”
Ryan Shapiro of the Massachusetts Institute of and a U.S. Freedom of Information Act researcher spells it out clearly, “ Democracy cannot meaningfully function without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government”. The ruling regime has just tolled another death-knell for democracy in India- will the people of India awake at least now, before it is absolutely late?
(The writer is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )
(Published on 29nd July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 31)