The Right To Information (RTI) is part of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, as mentioned in Article 19(1) of the constitution. Kavitha Alexis gives a run down on the RTI Act
Friday, June 02, 2006
“Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.” Ronald Reagan
Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognised Right to Information (RTI) as a fundamental right of people in a civilized world. In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly resolution stated, “Freedom of Information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone for all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Right to Information is a key enabler of good governance, and is a tool to ensure transparency and accountability in the government. It also helps ensure participation of public in governance, eliminate corruption and empower the people. It gives the citizen the right to seek information and makes it binding on officials to store and make the information easily available to the public, with the exception only when withholding the information is in public interest.
Globally, over sixty countries have implemented some form of legislation with regard to right to information. Many other countries are following suit.
Right to Information in India
In India, after many deliberations over the years, the RTI Act was passed by the parliament in October 12, 2005, thus opening up the governance processes of our country to the public.
Information Communication Technology (ICT) is one of the best vehicles to ensure RTI to the citizens. As specified by the RTI Act, the use of IT tools in reaching information to the people is well manifested in many of the e-governance projects implemented in the country.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his intervention speech on RTI bill debate in Lok Sabha in May 2005, said “I believe that the passage of this bill will see the dawn of a new era in our processes of governance, an era of performance and efficiency, an ear which will ensure that benefits of growth flow to all sections of our people, an era which will eliminate the scourge of corruption, an era which will bring the common man's concern to the heart of all processes of governance, an era which will truly fulfill the hopes of the founding fathers of our Republic.”
The Right to Information (RTI) is part of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, as mentioned in Article 19(1) of the constitution. Despite this, the Indian governance system always followed the Official Secrets Act 1923 (OSA) of the British era. Except for some minor changes done in 1967, the Act still remains the same.
As a per OSA, disclosure of any information that is likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, or friendly relations with foreign States, is punishable. In the OSA clause 6, information from any governmental office is considered official information, hence it can be used to override freedom of information requests. On the basis of this, citizen's right to know about te governance system was always denied.
Added to this, the widening gulf between Indian bureacracy and its citizens and the common man's lack of knowledge to demand his rights, created an unbreakable barrier between the government and the common man.
The journey to RTI Act
Objections to the Official Secrets Act have been raised since 1948, when the Press Laws Enquiry Committee recommended certain amendments. However, Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a grass roots organization in rural Rajasthan initiated the right to information movement in a committed manner in the early 1990's. Set up by IAS officer-turned-activist Aruna Roy and several other activists, MKSS demanded the rural villagers right to inspect official records and to ensure a transparent administration. (For more info visit www.samarmagazine.org)
In 1996, National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) was set up by a group of people and it became the platform for RTI campaigns in the country. NCPRI and Press Council of India formulated an initial draft of a right to information (RTI) law. This draft was sent to the Government of India in 1996. The Consumer Education Research Council (CERC) draft was the next effort in RTI law, which was framed in lines with international standards.
In 1997, in a conference of chief ministers it was decided that the central and state governments would work together on transparency and the right to information. This was followed by central government agreeing to take immediate steps to introduce freedom of information legislation, along with amendments to the Official Secrets Act and the Indian Evidence Act, before the end of 1997.
In 1997, two states passed Right To Information legislation (Tamil Nadu and Goa). Government of India appointed a working group, headed by former bureaucrat and consumer rights activist HD Shourie, to draft what was reworked into the Freedom of Information bill, 2000. The Freedom of Information bill was introduced in parliament in 2002.
Meanwhile, RTI legislation was taken up by several other states in the country. In August 2004, NCPRI called for certain amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 2002 and it was forwarded to the National Advisory Council (NAC). NAC recommended these amendments to the Prime Minister of India for further action. Based on this the Right to Information Bill was introduced in Parliament on 22 December 2004.
This bill had many shortcomings and hence amidst severe protests from RTI activists, was referred to a standing committee of the parliament and to a group of ministers. In the next session of Parliament, the bill with jurisdiction to cover the whole of India was passed. The Act has come into effect all over India from 13 October 2005.
Right to Information Act 2005 – Features
RTI Act came into force on the 12th October 2005 (120th day of its enactment on 15th June, 2005). Some provisions in the Act have come into force with immediate effect viz. obligations of public authorities [S.4(1)], designation of Public Information Officers and Assistant Public Information Officers[S.5(1) and 5(2)], constitution of Central Information Commission (S.12 and 13), constitution of State Information Commission (S.15 and 16), non-applicability of the Act to Intelligence and Security Organizations (S.24) and power to make rules to carry out the provisions of the Act (S.27 and 28). The Act extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir. [S.(12)]
In the purview of RTI Act, Information means any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force but does not include "file notings" [S.2(f)].
Right To Information Act includes the right to:
i. inspect works, documents, records.
ii. take notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records.
iii. take certified samples of material.
iv. obtain information in form of printouts, diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts.[S.2(j)]
RTI Act has a wide reach and covers bodies like central government, the state governments, Panchayati Raj institutions & local bodies,
bodies that are established, constituted, owned, controlled or substantially financed by the government including non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and even private bodies will have to impart such information that the citizens ought to know.
RTI Act and ICT
The RTI Act specifically mentions the use of ICT for enabling citizens' right to information. The chapter II – 4 (1-a) of RTI Act states “Every public authority shall maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and the form which facilitates the right to information under this Act and ensure that all records that are appropriate to be computerised are, within a reasonable time and subject to availability of resources, computerised and connected through a network all over the country on different systems so that access to such records is facilitated”.
The Act further states, “It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.”
(Kavitha Alexis is Senior Reporter of CIOL)
Right to Information Act: officials see need for more awareness
The Hindu, Jun 02, 2006
Most applications pertain to service matters and individual grievances
# State Information Commission so far receives 583 petitions/appeals/ complaints
# Maximum number of requests related to Education and Municipal departments
# High-level meeting to be held on June 5 to review the implementation of the Act
HYDERABAD: A woman wanted to know why she was not given relief under the Apathbandhu scheme, while a few others sought names and addresses of lecturers who did revaluation of their answer papers. Another person asked why his son was not given a job on compassionate grounds.
These and hundreds of similar requests received by officials dealing with the Right to Information Act reflected the lack of awareness among people about the utility of the statute which was notified on June 15 last year.
Almost 70 per cent of the applications received all over the State under the Act concerned service matters and individual grievances, Information Commissioners – R. Dileep Reddy and A. Subba Rao – told The Hindu here on Wednesday.
The maximum number of requests related to Education and Municipal departments, while the least pertained to the Police Department. "This is being considered as a grievances redress cell," Mr. Reddy observed.
Instance in Vizianagaram
In another instance in Vizianagaram town, a house-owner was peeved at knowing that there was a difference of Rs.20 in the property tax levied on him and his neighbour.
He promptly filed an application with the Municipal Commissioner seeking details of the tax being collected for each of the 600 houses in the colony.
Pointing out that a lot more awareness needed to be created among people as also officials, he said that a letter written by a retired IAS officer to the Secretary, R and B, was returned without even being opened.
After he wrote to the State Information Commission, the official was asked to furnish relevant information within 15 days.
The commission so far received 583 petitions/complaints/appeals. Of them, 312 were disposed of and orders were passed in 40 cases. In 11 others, it issued notices summoning officials and the aggrieved.
Interestingly, 174 of the 213 pending cases related to a single individual who sent applications to almost all departments, TTD and AP Bhavan seeking information on a variety of matters, including phone bills. A high-level meeting would be held on June 5 to review the implementation of the Act.