By Anuva Kulkarni:
The success of a democracy is based on the faith that its people have in their government. India is famously referred to as the world’s largest democracy, and yet what do we see? Mistrust and doubt in our minds as to how our government is spending our taxes. Who knows, perhaps they are in fact being used for personal reasons such as funding our politicians’ ‘medical treatments’ abroad. (See Sonia Gandhi’s travels abroad)
Information and transparency are what we need if we are to take the first steps towards justice and if we want to see our hard-earned money being put to good use. The Right To Information Act (RTI), passed in June 2005, can prove to be a powerful ally in this quest for the truth. This act has been given the status of a Fundamental Right under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. Under Article 19 (1), every citizen has Freedom of Speech and Expression and the right to know how the government works, what roles it plays, what its functions are and so on.
The RTI Act is applicable to all States and Union Territories of India except Jammu and Kashmir (The Jammu & Kashmir Right to Information Act is applicable here). The RTI states that “any citizen may request information from a ‘public authority’ (a body of Government or ‘instrumentality of State’) which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days“. Not only that, the Act requires public authorities to maintain computer records so that certain information can be widely published for the benefit of citizens. The Act does have exclusions pertaining to Central security agencies and a few other organizations, but it empowers the common man to inspect and obtain copies of government documents, take notes and also get certified samples of material. You can read success stories about the use of the RTI here.
Arvind Kejriwal campaigned for the passage of the Right to Information Act along with Aruna Roy and the others. Known as an RTI Activist, he is now using the same to fight corruption in income tax departments, municipal corporations, electricity boards, etc. However, laying aside the possibility of a dramatic exposÃ© of political scandals leading to some serious upheaval in the nation’s government offices, the RTI does have uses in everyday life problems like recovery of pending insurance policy dues, tax refunds and provident funds transfer. Citizens are encouraged towards its use because it helps in getting you answers as fast as possible and costs a lot less as compared to going to the court with your woes.
At this year’s annual RTI convention, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the Act was subjected to ‘ frivolous and vexatious use’ and was proving to be ‘a drain on resources’, thus angering activists across the country. The Prime Minister believes that this seemingly frivolous use will prove to be a problem for public private partnerships (PPP), because extension of the RTI Act to PPP entities might discourage private enterprises to enter in partnership with the public sector whereas its exclusion may harm the accountability of public officials. Activists disagree and declare, “Many ordinary people see the PPP model as a ploy by the government to escape its responsibilities and accountability. PPP projects should therefore have greater transparency and accountability.”
Dear Mr Prime Minister, if you do not want to waste resources and precious man-hours, curbing the powers of the RTI isn’t the solution. The solution is a transparent, efficient system of government that helps its citizens instead of harassing them. It is essential that the RTI remains powerful, because without that, we, the people have no other way of questioning our government and be assured of receiving replies. It has been classified as a Fundamental Right, and I don’t think it is unreasonable to argue that the government should safeguard and support it, rather than constantly provoke criticism from activists by taking a stand against it.
We proudly exercise all our other rights — Freedom of Speech, Expression, Religion, so why not this one? Without any publicity, RTI users seem to think that the Act will reach its saturation point one day. There is also the added threat of it being sapped of its true potential due to the amendments made by the government from time to time. Remember, “To question your government is not unpatriotic – to not question your government is unpatriotic.” By not asking the right questions, you just give the impression that you don’t care. One look at the extortion, the dishonesty and the misery around us ought to be enough to convince us that the biggest crime of them all is to not care about our country, our people and the blows of injustice that they have to bear every day.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” For who will guard the guards? Who will rule the rulers? The answer has to be: We, the People.
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