Despite Massive Delays, Why People At Grass-Roots Still Believe In The RTI

The marks of state-led violence are darker where resistance is least. Encroaching upon the rights of the people, while still being treated as their saviour is what the state does, flawlessly.
By exposing the state of such embezzlement, the Right to Information Act helps people develop the ability to understand what is good for them, and act accordingly.

With all its odds, on October 12, India’s Right to Information Act, 2005 (hereinafter RTI) is completed 12 years of operationalisation. The Act stands among the most revolutionary, homegrown legislations passed by the Indian parliament in the post-independence era. Hundreds of RTI applications filed by the ordinary citizens on diverse subjects, pinging different government departments, receiving a variety of responses, following or unfollowing the provisions laid out by the national legislation and the rules set by the different state legislatures, subsequently.

The struggle started in a remote area called Devdungri in the Rajasmand district of Rajasthan. It is a story of the struggle of ordinary people turning out to be extraordinary. It is a story of them demanding a copy of the muster rolls and exposing the state’s split personality.

Unveiling corruption in its different avatars, the RTI is responsible for empowering people, particularly at the grassroots, to fight for their rightful entitlement. Dealing with all hindrances, people at the grassroots have shown strong efforts to acquire their due by filing an RTI application. Across the country, at the grassroots, people have received ration cards, BPL/APL cards, electricity connections, repaired roads etc merely by filing RTI applications and challenging the culture of bribery.

Certainly, the very act of RTI speaks volumes to a system reeking with the malaise of corruption at all levels of governance. However, the culture of mortgaging the sustenance of millions, benefitting out of the dominating powerful position be it public or private or private accompanied by the public, still survives stronghold. Accountability, transparency, responsiveness and the shift that RTI has brought-in the system is unmatchable to the existent institution of the audit or anti-corruption law in the country. The ‘Right to Question’ that has been set in tone by RTI has empowered every single stakeholder, the people standing at the end-side of the process.

Secrecy and Silence

Even after the seven decades of practising democracy, questioning a ‘wrong’ and showing dissent against an ‘act of abuse’ is still an offence in the eyes of the state. This status quo has been numerously justified through state–instigated violence in its different manifestations, where the most potent illustration is the killings of activists and crusaders in various fields that have been strongly drudging against state’s illicit façade.

The shift towards openness is quite observable with the advent of RTI in the administrative-practice. Before the RTI, there was no agency through which the poor could claim their rights through such a convenient and accessible procedure. It was through democratic means of dharnas, protests and hunger strikes which have usually been served with tear gases, barricades and lathi -charges. Even to quell citizen anger, a temporary metamorphosis for a democratic state was easy to slide from democratic to authoritarianism with no question to be put on the authority.

In such a situation, where will a poor person with no financial stability and now a survival crisis go? Now a ‘black box of information’ has been put at the center of the table for the people’s query, receiving a complete overhaul.

In many places, people fear the police as they did in times of British India and this is why a rural man/woman still have fear of a local daroga (sub-inspector). The practice has been persisting unaltered, be it police or bureaucracy or political rule. A certain class of the society has been enjoying the fruits of the booming, shining, liberalised-privatised-globalised and now ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ India.

Breaking the silence, a severer jolt to this ancient practice is a lay man’s RTI, demanding the details of funds received and expenditure incurred on different services by the concerned public authority, bolstering equitable distribution of resources and thus ensuring justice. Bringing openness into fashion, smashing the British legacy of secretive culture, RTI has altered the flavour of the government-people equation.

The Functioning Dysfunctional

Knowingly or unknowingly, the illusion of being served by the state is strong and this is why local populace understands and learns to deal with the government procedure. This has been rightly discussed by Akhil Gupta in his seminal work, “Their knowledge of the state is simply the necessary consequence of the brute struggle for survival against overwhelming odds. Learning more about the state was invaluable aid to improving one’s life chances in the world.”

An agency that helps in adding up more to their knowledge and an instrument to empower to vent their growling dissent in a democratic manner is what lies in demanding information on what has happened to be the denied entitled subsidized goods that have been set for them by the state. The openness that the state speaks about has to pass the test of accountability. We are a sullen, unhappy and comprising lot, being governed by a state with reserved responsibility.

At its core, the struggle through which the RTI came into being mirrors the frustration and anger among citizens. People are satiated with lip service and the state assures the people that it’s always working in their service.

Robust and Vibrant to Serve

The generally held notion about RTI is to bring reforms in governance, ensuring transparency and accountability in service delivery. But the actual, latent applicability of the act is yet to be realized. The first report of the second administrative reforms commission has discussed the three prime purposes of RTI: an instrument upholding openness in administration, secondly an anti-corruption agency, thirdly, a shift from representative democracy to participatory democracy.

The complete overhaul of the state towards an open government might welcome more assaults and killings as the roots of corruption are deeply penetrated in the system and works in a networked fashion. Why are RTI queries forestalled? In several cases, at grassroots even providing a copy of muster roll, revenue vouchers, a list of BPL card holders has been perceived as a challenge by the public authorities. Beginning at the gram panchayat level, a single question might bring into scanner the public authorities at block and district as well as state and the centre for an act of arbitrariness. The higher official might get off scot-free but their names might get exposed in public and most importantly, the process might set an example for those who have coloured their hands in any act of miss-appropriation of nation’s wealth.

In most cases at the rural-level, it has been found that, even after filing the first appeal, second appeal and complaint the applicant does not get the required information they are seeking for and it takes two to three years to get the case disposed. The matter of the fact is that their long-lasting patience and hope for the information demanded justifies how strongly people believe in getting a piece of information through filing an RTI.

In this context, where the state and corruption are inseparably intertwined, and corruption is the ‘aide’ of the ruling institutions and ordinary masses. It is this ‘dual personality’ of the state, the dividing wall between the government and the people, the entry to which is accompanied by the middleman, squashing the ethos of democracy that has raised the usability of RTI.

Mandating the public authority to timely respond to the queries of citizens, the act has ensured a complete revamp of the duties and responsibilities of the state. Therefore, it is the duty of every citizen, activist and honest members of public authorities to safeguard any dilution of the act that makes it toothless and transforming it into a state-tamed chimera.

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