“Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday welcomed constructive criticism of his government’s performance because such an action strengthens democracy,” reads the opening line of a Hindustan Times article after the PM addressed the nation in one of the country’s best-received radio programs, called “Mann Ki Baat”. The monthly radio address has generated a revenue of about ₹10 crore for the All India Radio (AIR) in the last two fiscals.
Surely, the Right to Information, that has an objective of promoting ‘transparency and accountability in the working of the government’ and making ‘our democracy work for the people in a real sense’, falls in line with the PM’s hope for a strengthened democracy. Yet, we see a restriction on its potential and a compromise on the security of RTI applicants.
According to an analysis by NGO Commonwealth Human Rights initiative, the death toll of RTI activists was 56 between 2005 and mid-2016. Of these, there were 51 murders and 5 suicides. There were also 130 instances of harassment. The government has also proposed to automatically stop proceedings related to an RTI query if the applicant dies while the appeal is pending before the Chief Information Commissioner. The same set of draft proposals even provides for the withdrawal of a right to information application. This would not only limit the scope of the act but can also make activists more vulnerable.
RTI received its biggest blow with the refusal of the government to disclose details of the note ban process. The government not only took a unilateral decision to demonetize the ₹500 and ₹1000 notes but subverted the Act, by citing that it could be detrimental to the economic interests of the state. Considering the fact that demonetization had serious economic, social and political ramifications across the country, this was a case in which the government was especially accountable to the people.
The ease with which the government continues to withhold information and even successfully sell its decision to the people is a cause for alarm, making it more important than ever that we recognise this right. With the subversion clearly visible at the top levels, we have reason to believe that it would percolate to the lower levels and render RTI useless.
RTI has proven its potential to check corruption and create accountability in the past. The Adarsh Housing Society scam, 2G scam and the Commonwealth Games scam are just some of the big exposés uncovered by the RTI. For the RTI to be successful both, the government and citizens need to work in tandem to strengthen it. Activists should be given protection, attempts to water down the Act’s provisions need to be stopped and efforts must be made to create more awareness about the act.
Accountability is critical in differentiating a democracy from a totalitarian regime. The RTI is a platform which helps us create accountability. Therefore, if the Prime Minister hopes to “strengthen democracy,” like he said, the government must recognize the essence of the right and take it seriously.