Singh Examines History, Future of Indian R2K Law

3 December 2010

The genesis of the Indian right to know law is explored and directions for the future are elucidated in a detailed paper by Shekhar Singh, a founding member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.

His insider view covers the birth of the movement in the 1990s and follows the course of the legislation through its passage in 2002 and 2004. Annexed to the 26-page paper are many key documents.  

Singh evaluates the success of the law, writing:

         In India, so far, it has performed well in addressing individual grievances, resolving specific problems, and exposing individual corruption. However, there is yet little evidence that all this leads to any fundamental systemic changes in the way in which the government conducts its business.

          Arguably, it is still too early for the long term, systemic, impacts of RTI to kick in. Perhaps, as more and more misdeeds get exposed and the government becomes increasingly accountable, there will be a gradual but inevitable movement towards better governance and towards greater public empowerment in relation to the government.

“The worrying thing,” Singh states, “is that the government, rather than recognizing that the opening up of its, functioning and the increase in accountability is perhaps the best way to prevent the “radicalization” of huge swathes of population, continues to try and weaken the RTI regime….”

The final section of Singh’s paper documents this trend and draws on the past to prescribe strategies for protecting the law.

As attempts are made to weaken the RTI Act, Singh writes, the value of have created a broad alliance is demonstrated.

      As a rapidly growing number of people use the RTI Act (estimated to be over a million a year at present), the number of stakeholders ready and willing to protest any attempt to tamper with the Act grows larger. Even though the Act does not work perfectly, enough of the information asked for is received (estimated to currently be about 60%) to ensure that those who have received it do not want to lose that privilege, and those who haven’t, live in hope.

Suggestions for Reform

Singh warns “this is not the time to gloat or be complacent,” saying the RTI Act “can die just because of poor implementation.” He urges that “clearly one priority must be to improve its implementation.”

He says the success of the RTI Act “must be measured not by the number of applications that are made for information, or even by the proportion of these that are responded to fully and in a timely manner, but by how effective it has been in improving governance.”

“In order to achieve this,” according to Singh, “the application and scope of the law has to be expanded and new and innovative ways found to use the Act to promote institutional probity.”

Singh concludes with a review of reform recommendations contained in the “People’s Assessment,” a 2009 report by a coalition of civil society groups and another 2009 report, done by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

He stresses five main themes:

–          The need to raise awareness of the RTI Act

–          The need to train civil servants

–          The importance of pro-active disclosure

–          The “poor state of record management”

–          The need for stronger information commissions.

Conclusion

 Summing up, Singh writes:

        Undoubtedly, the Right to Information Act is historic, and has the potential of changing, forever, the balance of power in India – disempowering governments and other powerful institutions and distributing this power to the people. It also has the potential to deepen democracy and transform it from a representative to a participatory one, where governments, and their functionaries at all levels, are directly answerable to the people for their actions and inaction. However, if this potential has to be actualized, a much more concerted push has to be given to strengthen the RTI regime in the next few years. In struggles as fundamental as those for power and control, there is no time to waste. If the people do not come together and recapture the power that is rightfully theirs, vested interests will exploit this weakness and grow stronger and more invincible with each passing day. 

       So, the people of India move ahead, and the world watches with bated breath!

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