By Bestin Samuel:
Answers to questions, sometimes, would be clear as daylight. Sometimes they would be hazy, and you will have to strain to make out the words. Sometimes, the answer would just be silence. And if your country feels like you are asking too many questions, it just makes you forget that you had a right to ask questions in the first place. That is exactly what happened in Rajasthan recently, where a chapter in the Right to Information (RTI) Act was removed from the Social Sciences textbook of Class VIII. Why teach children that they have a right to question and to information, and later be forced to expose your own blemishes? If you teach them to be silent now, their questions will not haunt you later – this seems to be the mantra.
It is still a fairytale that an incredibly powerful legislative tool like the RTI Act is extant in the world’s largest democracy that scored 38/100 in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index. The milestone Act has a stated objective to “empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense”. An informed citizen is better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed, adds the RTI Citizen Gateway. All this in a country which still holds dear the archaic Official Secrets Act, 1923, which talks about not divulging “information or the destruction or obstruction thereof, or interference therewith, [which] would be useful to an enemy” – well-intended but with an exponentially risky purview. It would be time-consuming to even consider initiating a debate on who constitutes an ‘enemy’ in these times of troubled nationalism, but the fact remains that the RTI Act boldly says it will deliver, notwithstanding the Official Secrets Act, if “public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests”.
Yes, the RTI Act was indeed monumental. As it confidently promenaded along India’s public front, the writing on the wall was clear – corruption, which had permeated every crevice of administration, had to stop. As the fear grew in the echelons of power, applause and relief grew among the poorest of the poor. According to studies, the total bribe amount involved in a year in below poverty line (BPL) households availing just basic services was estimated to be INR 883 crores. In many of India’s villages which house these families, the RTI Act has been used to avail social benefit schemes like getting food ration for individuals, ensuring quality and quantity of mid-day meals, and pushing for teacher and doctor attendance. When it comes to the relatively better-off citizens, the Act was still used largely for issues like cleaning up the locality, availing scholarships, getting EPF money, receiving passport and processing education loans – going by the success stories displayed in the government’s RTI website. At this juncture, India cannot afford stray incidents to determine the fate of a tested and proven law that has benefited millions of lives.
Despite multiple attempts at diluting one of the strongest public interest legislations, the Act has survived – but the same cannot be said of many of its users. Lawyer Ram Kumar Thakur from Bihar exposed the MNREGS corruption of around 40 lakh by the corrupt village sarpanch, and was killed in 2013, shot at point blank range. Rinku Singh Sahi, a civil servant who exposed a 40 crore fraud in Uttar Pradesh was assaulted, detained, and admitted in a psychiatric ward in 2012. Reportedly, 289 attacks on RTI activists have occurred since the passing of the Act in 2005, including instances of murder, assault, kidnapping and threat calls.
However, with a well thought-out and futuristic plan, Rajasthan – the fountainhead of most things RTI – has taken giant leaps to censure the way a generation thinks; a way that does not feature questioning status quo, corruption, and injustice. This is not an isolated attempt at nipping free thought and an attitude of questioning. It is, in fact, one of the most recent nails in the coffin that aims to bury the rights to know and understand.
The world’s largest democracy, founded on justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, cannot afford to erase one of its biggest achievements – the right to information. Miserably, the recent past has painted a picture of a country which is increasingly intolerant when it comes to dealing with critique and uncomfortable questions. From lambasting the UN special rapporteur’s report that mentioned caste discrimination to concealing of caste figures of the Socio-economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC), India has been playing its cards very, very close.
A full-fledged RTI Act retaining its original form is imperative to knowledge-empower India’s citizens. According to a 2009 study, the awareness levels about RTI among men was 53% higher than women, and the OBC/SC/ST categories trailed behind the ‘general’ category by 48%. Poor quality of information and officials’ perception of RTI as a time-wasting tool is also a much common complaint, despite an overwhelming majority of the RTIs being related to the delivery of basic needs and amenities. Additionally, implementation of RTI is an area that needs urgent attention, especially protection of whistleblowers, maintaining confidentiality of applicant identity and effective deduction of penalties. A dedicated office for RTI is required, with a focused effort to enhance the range and quality of the usage of RTI among citizens.
In 1910, Tagore visualised a land where the “mind is without fear” and “knowledge is free”. However, the Bard of Bengal certainly might not have imagined that things would turn drastically different a century later. The mind is with fear, and knowledge definitely comes at a price. An attitude change is a must – public information is a right, and not charity. Any attempts to dilute the Act and diminish its ambit must be warded off, ‘in public interest’, especially when it comes to denying upcoming generations their right to know about their right to know. It might profit the country to treat the blight before it consumes it, and make the essence of democracy an official secret.