RTI Trends: The Good, The Bad And The Bizarre!

Posted on February 11, 2013 in Specials

By Charumati Haran:

“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, former US President

RTI — Right to Information; A seemingly harmless, basic and simple right — the right to ask questions and the right to demand answers. RTI is a natural consequence of a large democracy with complicated structures and a population rife with lack of education. If we think of it like a company in the market, the citizens are simply the stakeholders who are questioning the firm’s decisions. Additionally, since the bureaucracy is an enormous system, it is very difficult to police. The sweeping powers of the RTI make it an ideal weapon in the hands of a concerned common man.

From detecting favouritism in government contracts to fighting illegal constructions on public land, so many success stories of RTI are there all over India. It had a prominent role in exposing the Adarsh housing scam, the public distribution scam in Assam and forcing IIMs to reveal their admission criteria. Needless to say, these same powers have sometimes been criticized by our lawmakers on various counts. There have been many attempts to dilute the powers of the RTI. It has been 8 years since the Act was passed. Therefore, before such a drastic step is taken, let us examine some of the recent trends in RTI usage and their implications.

Combining RTI with Public Interest Litigation — The RTI has given a boost to the number of PILs being filed. This has led to the judiciary taking a much more active role in law-making and redressing grievances. The Court has expanded its scope into many social, political and economic areas and is having its say in many diverse issues. While the common man is often stereotyped as helpless, but many nameless heroes have managed to get wrongdoers punished. The Court criticizes the government for its inaction on and cracks down on corrupt officials. On the other hand, the increase in judicial activism is creating a huge backlog of cases for the legal system to deal with. The lack of infrastructure is delaying the decisions. Litigation is often costly and time consuming. Many people, despite their problems, would rather avoid the ‘court-kacheri ka mamla’ than use it. Petitioners often complain of the lack of useful and timely information from public authorities. The inherent tension between legislature and judiciary makes it difficult to get judicial recommendations accepted.

Strange RTI and PIL Applications —

a) “What’s the Intelligence Quotient of Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi?”
b) “Why did you attend Nani Palkhivala Lecture? What time did you leave? Did you eat lunch or had tea? Which lawyer invited you for the function? We are working hard but we are not being able to concentrate many a times because these kinds of questions,“- SH Kapadia, CJI.

While bringing up niche issues is understandable, sometimes the petitions filed are absurd. These issues seem neither important nor helpful. In fact, they are wasting the time of the country and taking away time from more vital issues. This is one of the main arguments put forward by the government about why RTI should be modified.

Children are filing RTI applications — One of the things we can be very proud of is the fact that children are also taking an active role in filing petitions. These children, especially those from the vulnerable sections of society are setting a great example for the rest of the country. Students of Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, West Vinod Nagar were able to obtain fans, water and sanitation facilities for their government school. A 10 year old Aishwarya managed to get a garbage dump cleared and replaced by a public library. Many students have filed RTIs highlighting the presence of shops selling tobacco within 100 yards of their school. In particular, NGOs in hill regions have been actively teaching and encouraging children to use RTI. Children there have complained about a range of issues — why roads only exist on paper, littering, the lack of electricity connections, why their teachers don’t show up and so on. It seems that India can look forward to a more aware, empowered and responsible voters and citizens.

RTI Activists and the threats to their life – Too many RTI Activists and whistleblowers have been threatened, mobbed, assaulted, stabbed, injected with poison, shot and hit by vehicles. No doubt that these attacks originate from those harmed by an activist’s efforts, but this is a breakdown of law and order. When a person makes use of a perfectly legal provision, he must be protected while doing so. Infringing on RTi is no less than infringing on any other right, like right to speech and expression. Innocent men and women should not be killed for exposing rot in the system.

But on the bright side, RTI activists have taken recourse to creative solutions. First, filing under another person’s name, usually the name of some well recognized public figure. This maximizes the chance of getting a reply and also safeguards the identity of the actual person filing the application. During the time of the Anna Hazare Jan Lokpal protests, many people began filing petitions with the name of Anna Hazare or Arvind Kejriwal! This got them speedy, accurate answers, since officials were afraid of tangling with them. Second, websites like RTI Anonymous are making it much safer and easier by providing a network of volunteers who draft and file an application for you, in their own names.

In the end, RTI has proved to be a very proficient tool. It’s easy to file, it’s cheap and it’s often effective. It takes care of the common complaint that one can’t help “the system”. Even as some issues are resolved, new ones crop up. Sadly, the issue of safety of whistleblowers has not been given enough attention as yet. But the process of getting an answer starts with asking the right question.