Mumbai: Recently, the Central Information Commission (CIC) gave a miss to the Right to Information (RTI) Act’s 10th anniversary celebrations. The reason: The Modi government forgot to app-oint a Chief Information Commissioner. So even as the government promises good governance, transparency is given the go-by. And this is not just at the Centre, but in states too, where efforts are being made to weaken the law.
The RTI was the strongest weapon available to the people to make the bureaucracy and politicians accountable. But, the attitude of governments and bureaucrats towards those seeking information has made these individuals prone to several risks.
Anupama Jha, regional consultant of Trace International, and former executive director, Transparency International India, says two anti-corruption bodies in India, the Central Vigilance Commission and the CIC, are headless. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a catchy slogan, ‘Make in India’, and invited industrialists and entrepreneurs from abroad to come and invest here. How will foreign companies come and invest unless the government ensures good governance through transparency and makes India corruption-free,” she asks.
Sadly, information seekers are often at the receiving end of the anger by people in high places. They are either harassed or killed.
According to data collected by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiatives, in the first eight years of the RTI in India, 42 information seekers were killed and there were 300 cases of them being harassed, attacked and mentally tortured.
Data reveals that Maharashtra tops among states with the largest number of murders and attacks, nine and 53 respectively due to RTI. It is followed by Gujarat with three murders and 34 attacks. In fact, on October 17, 2014, the governor-ruled Maharashtra issued a directive in the form of a government resolution, asking all departments and offices not to provide any information under the RTI Act if it “does not constitute any public interest.”
The Right to Information (RTI) Act is often desc-ribed as a document next only to the Consti-tution. While the Constitution has had 98 amendments in the last 64 years, the RTI Act has faced more than 100 interpretations by the Supreme Court and various High Courts.
As per statistics compiled by the Pune-based Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Develo-pment Administration, while the apex court has so far passed 16 orders in connection with the RTI, the Allahabad High Court has passed three; Andhra Pradesh HC, five; Delhi HC, 29; Gujarat HC, four; HP HC, one; Jharkhand HC, two; Kerala HC, six; Kolkata HC, four; Mumbai HC, 22; Punjab and Haryana HC, 21; Madras HC, 10; Goa HC, two and Karnataka HC, two.
The Supreme Court too has withdrawn certain contentious orders. Take the famous Namit Sharma Vs Union of India case in early 2013. Here, a two-member SC bench ruled that Central Information Commis-sions as well as state information commissions (SICs) should be headed by retired or serving judges.
This led to many SICs suspending all hearings sine die. This ruling was next to impossible to implement, but many also felt that the judiciary was trying to enter into the territory of Parliament.
The government and civil society challenged this order, leading to the Supreme Court withdrawing it, admitting a “mistake of law.”
The bench also concluded it was ultimately “for the Parliament to consider” whether an appointment required judicial experience or not. On the other hand, another SC order was used by many information commissioners and public information officers as an excuse to delay or deny information.
In the famous CBSE Vs Aditya Bandop-adhyay case (9.8.2011), the apex court ruled, “The nation doesn’t want a scenario where 75 per cent of the staff of public authorities spends 75 per cent of the time in collecting and furnishing information to applicant instead of discharge their duties.”
Government officials excuse themselves saying they have to prevent people from misusing the RTI Act. However, activists view this as an attempt to weaken the RTI Act. Six RTI activists have lost their lives in Bihar from 2008 and 2013. Ten attacks were reported in eight years in Uttar Pradesh, An-dhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Haryana.
The attempt to curb the use of RTI has become so bad, says Shiv Prakash Rai, 56, of Nagrik Adhikar Manch, that people are simply not asking for information, fearing for their lives. Mr Rai was jailed for 29 days in 2008 for exposing the solar lights scam in Bihar’s Buxar region.
Incidentally, the RTI was the result of a prolonged struggle by the people at the grassroots level. It was finally born as part of the Fundament Rights in 2005; Parliament enacted the law on October 2005. But what started with great promise has floundered due to multifarious reasons.
SHAKE THE SYSTEM
Activist Dhananjay Jha who hails from Goraul, in Bihar’s Vaishali district, says that information commissions are filled with retired bureaucrats. He wondered how a former babu who spent 35 years hiding facts and remaining aloof from public, could help petitioners get information.
Mr Jha has also been threatened and his father bashed up for seeking information about government ration shops. A PDS shopkeeper hired goons and tried to kidnap his children. Mr Jha then sent his family into hiding. He got some relief only after the media highlighted his case.
In the initial years, the RTI was a strong weapon in the hands of people as the CIC focused its attention on political parties. A full bench of the CIC, headed by a no-nonsense ex-IAS officer, Satya-nanda Mishra, on June 3, 2013, took a historic decision by bringing the all-powerful political class under the purview of the RTI.
When political parties protested, the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, asked them to promulgate an ordinance to keep them away from the purview of the RTI Act. However, it didn’t help.
Parliament, then, tried to nullify the decision through an amendment, but in the face of stiff resistance from NGOs and civil society groups, the matter was referred to a Parliamentary committee.
The full bench of the CIC, while penning the landmark order said, “We hold that the Congress, BJP, CPM, CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the Central government under Section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act. The criticality of the role being played by these political parties and the nature of duties performed by them also point to their public character, bringing them in the ambit of Section 2(h). The constitutional and legal provisions discussed herein also point towards their character as public authorities.”
The full bench observed that political parties were given land worth Rs2,556 crore in Delhi and free airtime on Doordarshan.
The reason for the government wanting to weaken the Act was that it was causing a lot of embarrassment. Here are some cases: The CIC asked Pratibha Patil, the then President to declare her assets; the government was forced to disclose the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s note on the 2G spectrum case, and the Robert Vadra land deal in Haryana was being questioned through RTI.
The states, too, were not forthcoming and tried to weaken the law, leading to mounting cases in commissions. A study by RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group and Samay-Centre for Equity Studies in collaboration with the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, paints an alarming picture of information commissions across the country. The collective backlog in 23 commissions was 1.98 lakh cases as on December 31, 2013. The maximum number of appeals and complaints were pending in Uttar Pradesh (48,442), followed by Maharashtra (32,390) and the Central Information Commission (26,115).
Clearly, neither the Centre nor states are taking RTI seriously. How about some transparency here?