Roy Positive on Indian RTI Law, But Sees Challenges

6 July 2012

The Indian Right to Information Act “is a galvanizing force that has acquired a momentum that none of us saw coming, and which is going to be impossible to stop,” according to Aruna Roy, an instrumental force behind the law’s passage, who also outlined problems facing the law in a newspaper interview.

“What we are witnessing in India today is a period of transition when a culture of secrecy is being challenged and we have not yet accepted or shaped a culture of openness,” Roy told journalist Pallavi Polanki.

The interview came out July 5 and was played as a counterpoint to strong concerns being voiced about implementation of the RTI Act by retiring  Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi. (See previous report.)

However, Roy shared many of Gandhi’s concerns even while celebrated the law that she said “has in fact been protected by citizens across the board like no other legislation so far has been.”

Appointments Substandard

“The first problem is the process of appointments,” Roy said. “We still have not been able to institutionalise an effective system for appointment of independent commissioners. The Information commissioners appointed so far have overwhelmingly been former bureaucrats.  Though some of them have re-invented themselves, the majority would still carry former mindsets.”

Also, although “not surprising,” Roy continued, “… there is a huge problem of growing pendency.”

“The biggest failure of the commissions has been their failure to forge alliances with progressive groups and take on their unwritten but responsibility to be proactive and assertive in favour of transparency,” according to Roy. “Today, even their own proactive disclosures are weak, and the attempt by Shailesh Gandhi for the commission to have a citizens charter against which  it can be held to account, has failed to materialise.”

State Information Commissions “are overburdened, understaffed, not given adequate infrastructure to function and their decisions and rulings are being disregarded,” Roy also said.

 When there have been progressive rulings by federal and state commissioners, they have not been implemented properly, or have been stayed in the courts,” Roy added.

The Biggest Threat?

“The biggest threat to the effective implementation of the RTI is the bureaucracy itself and the arbitrary amendments that are being made to it through rules by various public authorities, and through rules and rulings of certain courts to limit its scope,” Roy said. “As Shailesh Gandhi points out, the threats come from all wings of government as well as inefficiencies, pendency and malfunctioning of  some of the Information Commissions.” In the interview she offers examples. 

“The right to access information is revolutionary and has definitely changed power equations because it has transferred the ownership and control of information from the government and agents of the state, to the people,” Roy said, warning, “To fight against this, it is imperative that a strong network be created between RTI users, activists, and others who understand the importance of this right across states, who can come together to protect the Act.” In the interview she expands on proposals to amend the law.

Also citing examples, Roy said, “There are many positive trends in the RTI today which is what gives us all the energy and sustenance to keep fighting for this legislation and its effective use. In spite of all its shortcomings and attacks from all around, it is being used creatively and effectively across the country. The RTI Act is no longer supported by RTI activists alone.”

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