The Indian citizens’ right to know stems from the right to freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under the Article 19 of the Indian constitution. One should remember that it is the availability of information that determines people’s engagement in the smooth functioning of a democracy. It is for this reason that Right to Information Act (2005) has been marked a key to open or true democracy. It has brought in transparency and accountability in governance and a sense of pride in the hearts of citizens.
With RTI at the side of the citizens, the onus would always be on the executives to perform responsibly. Transparency and accountability should be nightmare to the corrupt officers, who wish to keep people away from governance. At least, that is what we assume from a number of attempts to thwart and weaken the RTI Act by different governments. Though people have resisted such attempts time and again, the rulers have never shied away from repeated attempts.
The current talks in the media and political circles point toward another attempt aimed at destroying the autonomy of the Information Commissions. To stand up for the citizens and to provide them with information that is purposively hidden from public domain, the minimum that the Commissions require is autonomy – non-interference from the ruling class. Information commissions with political masters in control, is as good as not being there. This is what a proposed amendment to the Right to Information Act 2005 is understood to aim at.
Currently, the Information Commissioners are treated at par with the Election Commissioners of India, which means their tenure and payments are not at the mercy of the governments – they work with autonomy. This is what the political masters are not seemingly happy with - someone being not in their control and capable of doing them real harm.
The government thinks that the Information Commission is not a constitutional body and should be treated as a statutory body. This would mean the tenure and payment of the commissioners will be decided from time to time by the governments in power. The existence of the Commissioners will be co-terminus with the pleasure of the governments.
This will effectively turn the RTI Act toothless. There would not be many officers who really want to take a fight into the doorsteps of the political masters and get bitten in turn. Prudence of the information providers would seek themselves to be in the happy eyes of the masters.
Any attempt to weaken the RTI Act has to be resisted by all means available, as it has undoubtedly been one of the most empowering legislations for the citizens of this country. It has been used extensively by people for holding local governments and functionaries accountable for lapses in the delivery of services and safeguarding of basic rights and entitlements. The RTI Act has thereby started the process of reallocating power from the elite few to the general public and initiated the task of converting India into a true democracy.
Right to information is a fundamental right guaranteed as per Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India and is also recognized by various Supreme Court verdicts. The Act applies to all States and Union Territories of India, except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which is covered under a State-level law. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen of India can request for information from a "public authority", a body of Government or an "instrumentality of the State".
The RTI Act allows citizens to ask for records, documents, circulars, contracts, reports, papers, emails, memos and all other information held in print or electronic form from the public authorities. It also empowers citizens to physically inspect records that have been duly maintained by the government and its administrative bodies.
There are certain exemptions as well. Sections 8 and 9 of the Act exempt from disclosure, certain information and contents, especially such information related to national security, individual privacy, trade secrets etc. If a Public Information Officer decides that the information asked for is covered by an exemption, then the rejection notice of the application should contain specific reasons for the rejection of application.
It is a controversial question as to whether private institutions are covered under the RTI Act. Institutions like private schools or hospitals run by a Society or a Trust are not public authorities and hence are not covered under the RTI Act. But any private institution receiving any governmental aid or fund is duty bound to provide information with regard to the aid that they receive under the RTI Act.
Under the RTI Act, every citizen is entitled to receive a reply within thirty days in normal cases. And if the information relates to one’s life or liberty, the information has to be provided within 48 hours. In the latter case, the application should specifically mention how the information asked is related to one’s life or liberty.
While seeking information, the applicant does not need to provide any reason for demanding information. Every citizen of India is counted as a responsible and vigilant citizen entitled to know things that the citizens of a democracy should. There is also no particular format to be used while applying for information. However, the applicant must ensure clarity and preciseness in the questions asked – information on vague questions may be denied.
One of the significant features of the Act is that a piece of information can be obtained by a payment of 10 rupees by way of a postal order, cash, or a demand draft. More importantly, there is provision to provide information free of cost to citizens belonging to the below poverty line category, who are required to furnish a proof of their belonging to such a category.
There is a well defined structure of authority established under the RTI Act, which is in coherence with the federal system of governance that India follows. Information officers coming under the States are known as State Public Information Officers (SPIOs) and the Centre, Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs). If one does not receive information or receives partial or incomplete information from either SPIO or CPIO, an appeal (first appeal) can be filed with the Appellate Authority within the same department within 30 days.
If the applicant is not happy with the reply of the Appellate Authority as well, a second appeal can be filed with the State or Central Information Commissions as the case may be. Any appeal against the decisions of information officers in the state departments have to be filed with the State Information Commission and of the central government departments with the Central Information Commission.
It is pertinent to note that there is no provision to challenge the decisions of the State Information Commission before the Central information Commission. The decisions of the Information Commissions can only be challenged before the concerned High Courts. This is possible under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution. The applicant may even approach the Supreme Court against the decisions of the High Courts.
The Act also speaks about a punishment mechanism to check the denial of information or providing of partial or misleading information. There is provision for departmental actions against and imposing of a maximum penalty of Rs.25,000/- on the erring Public Information Officers.
By enacting the Right to Information Act, India has moved from an opaque and arbitrary system of governance to the beginning of an era where there will be greater transparency and accountability. By enacting the Act, India has taken a small but significant step towards the goal of empowering ordinary citizens. It is, in every sense, ushering in of a true democracy. And for these very reasons, the Indian citizen has to resist in all possible manners any attempt at weakening the RTI Act.
(The writer is an Advocate in the Supreme Court of India.)(Published on 17th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 38)