Ever since the RTI Act was implemented in 2005, the political fraternity has time and again sought amendments (unsuccessfully), cried foul over its misuse, with the bureaucracy agreeing no less.

Yet again RTI a thorn in the flesh of corrupt politiciansPTI
Voices Wednesday, May 11, 2016 - 13:00

The political fraternity across party lines suffers from RTI phobia. Threatened with exposure of their own misdemeanours, all political parties cry foul against a law that has ushered in transparency for citizens in every part of governance in India. The only area outside this pathbreaking law's remit are issues like national security.

Now, without any specific provocation, prominent politicians are raising hue and cry over `misuse’ of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Former Civil Aviation minister, Praful Patel is one of them. He was thoroughly exposed through an RTI query which established how his daughters misused Air India during his regime as minister. Rajiv Shukla, closely associated with the BCCI, which is under pressure to come under RTI Act, is also parroting the same. His attack is even more ridiculous as it is the Congress Party to which he belongs that implemented the RTI Act on 12th October, 2005. 

The way governments have tried to bring in amendments (mostly unsuccessfully) to the RTI Act would lead Indians to believe that it was a major political blunder which must be reversed. Against this background it is important to note that, in a comprehensive worldwide RTI Rating Project (2012) comprising 90 countries undertaken by the Canada based Centre for Law and Democracy and Spain based Access Info Europe, India stands 2nd in terms of a strong transparency law. The United Stated of America (USA) is ranked 39th and the United Kingdom (UK) comes at the 28th spot.

Most important is the fact that Indian citizens from all walks of life all are using the RTI Act successfully, a trend which was not envisioned by the executive and the legislature. They thought a few activists would read and use it and their voices could be easily scuttled. However, thanks to Aruna Roy and Anna Hazare who sowed the seeds of public awareness in rural and urban areas, the RTI has become a common tool to find out what’s happening with the tax payers’ money in issues directly affecting citizens.

It could be as microscopic as non-functioning street lights in your neighbourhood or pension not received. It could be for as large as the CWG and 2G scams that flared up as national scandals and became one of the reasons for containing the Congress Party in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. 

Public authorities (read as government offices) are now flooded with RTI applications and they too are adding to the chorus of `misuse’ and `overburden of work’ due to RTI. However, no one’s listening, as thanks to activists and scholars who drafted our RTI, they intelligently changed the nomenclature from `Freedom of Information Act’ to `Right To Information Act’, which has made a world of difference in citizen empowerment.

The RTI Act was first threatened just a year after its implementation. In 2006, the Manmohan Singh Government realized to its horror, that file notings in government documents revealed a bit too much of how decisions were taken on projects and proposals. It promptly tried to bring in an amendment in which `file notings’ would be out of the purview of the RTI Act. Thanks to Anna Hazare’s tenacious campaign, the government had to withdraw their proposal. A second attempt at curtailing the act was thwarted by Aruna Roy.

Thereafter, the government has been adding to the list of public authorities who are being thrown out of the purview of the RTI Act. For example, the Special Branch, Police in Maharashtra is out of the RTI Act. This means people cannot even get simple information on how many foreigners are residing in their city or how many are over-staying.

Funding for political parties is another key issue. In 2013, an order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) deemed India’s six national political parties to be “public authorities” under the RTI Act. The landmark judgment noted: “We have no hesitation in concluding that the INC/AICC, the BJP, the CPI(M), the CPI, the NCP and the BSP have been substantially financed by the Central government and therefore, are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.”

Anil Bairwal, national co-ordinator for Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), is the main crusader along with noted RTI activist Subhash Agrawal, campaigning for making political party donations transparent. Interestingly, they are fighting tooth and nail with all the documents they have gathered from different government departments, under RTI.

Elaborating on why they come under RTI Act since they are ‘substantially’’ financed by the government, Bariwal states that it is common knowledge that the political parties get many benefits and facilities from various government departments. Political parties get substantially financed by a very large amount by getting tax exemption on all their income. In addition, all the major political parties have been also provided facilities for residential and official use by Directorate of Estates (DoE). 

They have been given offices and accommodation at prime locations in New Delhi like Akbar road, Raisina road, Chanakyapuri, etc and are charged only a token amount of money as rent or dues. These facilities are not just provided to them at marginal rates but their maintenance, modernisation, renovation and construction is also done at state expense. A large amount of money is also spent by the Election Commission of India on political parties for giving electoral rolls.

The ADR official further said  “Doordarshan and AIR also provide free broadcast facilities to the political parties. If closely seen, the money spent on that basis actually runs in crores of rupees. State funding is also given for publicity of political parties during elections. It is indeed very surprising that the political parties who at one end claim to work under transparent and people-centric manner have flatly refused to work in such a fashion.’’

Despite the CIC order, politicians are now trying to bring a bill that would put all political parties out of purview of the RTI Act but they have not succeeded so far and are unlikely too.

Another threat to the RTI Act is the judiciary which sometimes overrules CIC decisions. Many good decisions by the CIC see the doors of various Courts by vested interests and information is frozen until then. In addition, the selection of CICs are largely confined to retired government servants who have been conditioned to withhold information. Interestingly, until 2005, the Official Secrets Act, 1923 ruled the roost and therefore conditioned the bureaucracy to hide all information and treat citizens disdainfully in case they demanded information. 

The Right to Information Act 2005 changed all that. Quite naturally, the Official Secrets Act should have been repealed, but it hasn’t been. There is a Goyal committee working towards it, presently. Thankfully though, a clause in Section 8(2) of the RTI Act says, “Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923, nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with subsection 8(1) of RTI Act, a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.”

As per a study in 2010 by http://www.cuts-international.org/ , in the Overview of the Impact In India, it observes, ``the Act has produced a better impact on the quality of the life of the poor and the marginalised. During the past five years, the Act has brought positive changes in the levels of corruption and accountability. There are quite a number of cases, where the Commission has ordered for providing the details of the decision making processes including file noting, cabinet papers, records of recruitment, selection and promotion of staff, documents pertaining to tender processes and procurement procedure, lists of beneficiaries of government subsidised schemes, such as food grains supplied through ration shops, water and electricity, domestic gas, educational and health facilities, shelter for poor, muster rolls under employment guarantee schemes, etc. The disclosure of such vital information(s) resulted in checking corrupt practices in delivery of services and ensuring the reach of entitlements to the poor.’’

Perhaps the RTIs strongest part is Section 4 which empowers every citizen to conduct inspection of files in government offices during working hours and demand Photostat copies, CDs. Models etc of any document. Citizens should invoke Section 4 as much as possible. However, the ultimate dream of Transparent India would be when, every government department adheres to the suo motu disclosures mandated in Section 4, in which most of the information of its work is put on its website and citizens would be able to get it by a mere click of the mouse. If that happens, the percentage of RTI applications would reduce by more than 90%. A dream, which can come true, if the present breed of politicians is replaced by ones who have no fixed agenda of filling in their coffers vulgarly in their five years tenure. Let us be positive.

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