Ghosts in their cupboards
The right to information campaign has unnerved the local bureaucracy in India. No wonder, they are hatching dubious conspiracies to block the dogged ghostbusters
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
The worst of fears on the right to information (RTI) campaign have come true. The rules of the RTI Act stands amended in Bihar. Now, public information officers (PIO) have the power to split the information sought by people so that the financial burden on the applicant can increase. For instance, a question can be broken into different parts. The applicants will thus have to shell out an extra Rs 10 for each question asked. That is, the local bureaucracy has found a way to nip the RTI bud at the first point of entry itself.
The worries don't end here. The information seekers who belong to the economically weaker sections - a sizeable number - will not be able to avail of more than 10 pages of information free of cost. It is this section, despite scores of welfare schemes over several decades, which is still reeling under acute poverty. "The RTI is a weapon for the oppressed sections of the Indian society," says Information Commissioner ML Sharma. Hence, it is this section which should be empowered through this Act, so that they can check how the funds marked for them are being siphoned off by an organised nexus of officials and local mafia for years.
Multiple problems continue to hamper the speedy implementation of the law. Most governments seem disinterested. The fiasco in Bihar happened because the central government has not been able to frame basic rules that would govern the RTI all across the country. "We have time and again drafted and submitted rules to the concerned authorities," says Aruna Roy, noted RTI activist.
Hardnews was informed by a senior official in the Central Information Commission that the government does not want to tamper with the federal character of the law where state governments and other institutions have the power to frame their own rules.
A government-sponsored study, recently done by Price WaterhouseCoopers, found that only 25 per cent of the people were satisfied with the information provided to them under the RTI. When one such petitioner approached the Supreme Court for information of all cases related to terrorism and fundamentalism, he was told that the information is there on the internet. "So how many in this country have access to the internet," asked an activist. It is a fact that the majority of people in India are neither computer literate, nor do they have access to computer networks.
When the petitioner filed the first appeal, he alleged that the first appellate authority of the Supreme Court asked him to explain in English which he apparently had to do through a friend. The petitioner than lodged a complaint with the law minister, the chief justice of India and the Central Information Commissioner. The law ministry reportedly did not act. Later, again, a RTI petition was filed to know the status of the complaint; but no information was given by the office of the law minister.
The archaic system of recording everything in paper files has made the task of maintaining records arduous and cumbersome. Not enough has been done to convert them to an electronic form which can be accessed with a single click. This is used by the bureaucracy to block information since the files have to be dug out. "There is an urgent need to improve the record management system in the country. There is a need for a task force to make the records digital, starting from the lower most villages and block level," feels Medha Patkar, leading social activist.
Experts feel that a RTI module must be incorporated into the training process of all government employees. The PIOs suffer from lack of basic knowledge. Also, lack of incentives demotivates them. Activists argue that dynamic programmes and ideas should be put in place to raise awareness levels. A mix of traditional and modern methods must be envisaged so that even the most deprived sections can be targeted.
Recently, a lot of noise has been made about the proposed amendments to the RTI Act. A strong lobby within the bureaucracy wants to exempt file notings from being disclosed. It is these notings which reveal the entire decision-making process and who are the decision makers. In a democratic set up, people have the right to know about the decision-making process.
This facet of the RTI Act has been facing stiff opposition from bureaucrats and ministers who do not want to be exposed. It has also strengthened the hands of honest officers, since the corrupt ones fear that they will be publicly exposed. "It is the higher bureaucracy which is most corrupt," one information commissioner told Hardnews. Activists believe that file notings is the essence of RTI.
Also, there is much lobbying on the issue of frivolous or vexatious applications. Experts say that had the government proactively disclosed all information under section 4, the problem of frivolous applications would not have arisen. What the government terms as frivolous is actually the information which should be voluntarily put out. Several times, information is concealed under the pretext of it being a State secret.
The working of the various information commissions is under a cloud. The pendency level of appeals has taken gigantic proportions, even while some state information commissions like that of Gujarat and Rajasthan have just one information commissioner. There are reports that information commissioners are not serious, and the information commission has become a dumping ground of ex-bureaucrats.
Says Arvind Kejriwal, RTI activist, "A bureaucrat or a non-bureaucrat is not a problem. But the transparency record of the official must be taken into account before entrusting him with such responsibilities." There are also reports of public authorities not complying with the orders issued by information commissioners. The commissioners have failed to penalise the PIOs for their repeated misgivings despite strong, punitive provisions.
Even if the RTI reveals a corrupt practice, there is no mechanism in place to follow up on that and initiate proceedings. Courts take months/years. This leaves ample time for erring officials to sanitise records. Now, there are demands of a national grievance redressal commission for swift action on such cases of corruption.
The RTI Act, born out of a sustained movement by grassroots activists, has come a long way in its brief journey of four years. The awareness is steadily increasing, although the government is not a hero in this success story. The situation of RTI Act in the country, noted activists like Aruna Roy and Shekhar Singh argue, is better than other countries, including South Africa, the UK and Mexico, where similar acts exist. Reportedly, in South Africa, only 22 per cent of the applicants get the information they want.
"A kind of grievance redressal mechanism for petty complaints has thus developed. The stipulated time period of 30 days for providing information is sometimes looked upon as 30 days for solving the problems of the applicant," says Shekhar Singh.
An application under the RTI Act has also become a source of information for higher officials who otherwise would normally not inquire into what their sub-ordinates are doing. Now, the task of disseminating information is entrusted on a high-ranking official.
The judges of the Supreme Court have to declare their assets. The chief minister of Karnataka, BS Yeddyuruppa was forced to announce that he will not be spending a crazy amount of money in renovating his house. And at last, some long kept secrets, held close to their hearts by possessive bureaucrats and politicians, are now coming out of the closets.