Eighth Anniversary Prompts Reflections on Indian RTI Act

14 October 2013

The eighth anniversary of India’s Right to Information Act was observed with a mixture of frustration and celebration.

Unquestionably, the 2005 sunshine law is being used, with an estimated 4 million people using the Act during 2011-12, the latest year for which all-India data is available, according to a report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, described by the Times of India.

“While there has been much cynicism over information denied by public authorities under RTI, the data tells a different story. Less than 10% of all RTI queries recorded have faced rejection,” the article states.

Many of the retrospective articles, however, focused on difficulties faced by requesters.

Articles Review Problems

An overview article in the Times of India by Anahita Mukherji is entitled:  “Eight years on, RTI Act remains a story of attempts to bury it.”

A similarly titled article, “8 years on, a lot still left to do,” by Anand Mishra, in Asian Age, states:

The RTI Act has helped in exposing scandals and irregularities. Almost all big scams like 2G and Commonwealth games were exposed through a series of RTI petitions. However, activists feel that the RTI Act still needs a lot to make it stronger and more meaningful because from time to time, there have been efforts to kill its soul.

A more upbeat assessment appears in The India Express under the headline “8 years on, RTI Act counts its milestones,” by Shyamlal Yadav. (Click “single page format” to see the whole article.)

Backlogs Highlighted

The Times of India’s Amarjeet Singh examined the backlog of cases in Madhya Pradesh, writing:

With around 15,000 appeals and 2,000 complaints pending with the state information commission as per the official records, the RTI Act has apparently been rendered ineffective in the state.

A similar line was taken in a dnaindia.com article. Mayank Aggarwal wrote:

Even as India celebrates the eighth anniversary of the Right to Information (RTI) Act that made common man feel empowered and was instrumental in exposing nearly all big scams in the last few years, pendency of appeals and complaints piling up at the information commissions are making it toothless. According to estimates, across the country, several lakhs of appeals and complaints are pending.

The Times of India reports that many young Indians don’t use the act.

Young metropolitan Indians are aware of the Right to Information and strongly believe it works. Yet, hardly any of them have actually used this right to get the information they want, despite most insisting that they would like to use it. Those are the key findings from an exclusive survey conducted in the country’s five biggest metros — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore — among men and women aged between 21 and 40 years. The survey was done by Ipsos, a leading global research agency.

An Indian Express article by Manoj More begins:

Eight years after it came into being, the RTI Act has caught the fancy of citizens in Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, but what seems to have hampered its momentum is the apparent “negative attitude” of the officialdom in providing information to RTI applicants.

Personal Experiences 

Another Times of India article describes the use of the act mainly through one man’s story:

AHMEDABAD: Raghubha, a daily-wage worker from Nandana village in Jamnagar district, was tired of applying to government agencies for a grant for constructing an individual toilet. Without much knowledge of Right to Information (RTI), he sought the help of some activists. Soon after, he sent an application to District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) seeking information on how many villagers had received grants for construction of toilets and how many were actually built.

He received several threats and had to fight a long battle. He finally got the information that as many as 300 people were granted money but no toilets were built. This information not only forced the local administration to take action against the village sarpanch and the Taluka Development Officer (TDO) but also helped Raghuba get the money he was seeking for long.

An Indian Express article about a frequent user begins:

A 52-year-old Mumbai-based businessman, who has filed an average of 450 applications per month under the Right To Information (RTI) Act from January last year, has claimed that 90 per cent of his pleas get no response. Originally from Kutch’s Abdasa taluka, Ramesh Joshi has filed 11,841 RTI applications till date.

The deaths of RTI activists were commemorated in some articles, including this one in the Daily Bashkar.

About four Right to Information (RTI) activists have been killed and 24 attacked in Gujarat till date, said a note issued by the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) on Saturday, which marks the last eight years of implementation of this historic act.

Political Party Exemption a Hot Topic

Some speeches at a two-day  seminar on Right to Information – The Way Forward – which concluded Oct. 12, focused on the ongoing debate over whether political parties should be covered by the act. RTI Act supporters who are opposing the united front of political parties seeking to exempt the parties from the RTI Act following a ruling to include them from the Central Information Commission.

Minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor said it was his “personal view” that RTI “should be embraced by political parties.”

The previous day, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi said he was in favour of “partially” bringing political parties under the ambit of the law, according to the Indian Express.

“Rahul is said to be of the view that a political party’s “financial details” should be made available to people through the RTI, while those relating to its internal functioning like the ticket distribution process, Congress Working Committee decisions and appointments, among others, could be kept out of its purview,” the paper reported. The article also said:

It is yet another instance in which the ruling party and the UPA government do not seem to be in sync with Rahul, who recently forced the Manmohan Singh government to withdraw the controversial ordinance on convicted MPs and MLAs calling. Sources said that while the government was keen to push the RTI (Amendment) Bill through in the last session of Parliament to nullify the CIC’s order, it was Gandhi who had forced the government to refer it to the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

In another speech, the leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan has proposed that the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) be brought under the purview of the RTI Act  to make its proceedings transparent, the Hindu reported.

Also at the conference, Kerala Governor Nikhil Kumar “cautioned against misuse of the Right to Information (RTI) Act whose true purpose was to enhance public participation in governance and make governments more transparent and accountable,” the Business Standard reported.

The conference was organized by the Kerala Government, State Information Commission and the Institute of Management in Government.

Apparently it was not without controversy, as reported by the New Indian Express.

In an embarrassing situation at a seminar on the Right to Information (RTI) organised by the State Information Commission here on Thursday, an RTI activist was left fuming when he was not allowed to speak during the interaction time, and also when the connection to his wireless mike was disconnected when he tried to raise critical points in front of chief information officer Jannat Hussain.

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