Yesterday, I had a chance to interact with the administration of IIT B regarding the disbursal of revised fellowship and arrears of research scholars. The level of secrecy and, consequently, the control the administration maintains or wants to maintain, was astonishing to me. The group of research scholars which I was part of was not given any chance even to have a look at the documents, be it extract of the minutes of the meeting or the official order. IIT B may have its reasons for such non-disclosure. But, what I understood is that keeping relevant information secret from the stakeholders is a mode of constituting power and exercising it as well. It creates hierarchy and disempowers those who are at the receiving end of pre-existing power relations, in this case, research scholars. The information which research scholars were demanding, or politely asking for, is not something which has the potential to disrupt anything. Yet, it was not shared.
Understand the importance of the Right to Information Act in this context. The group of research scholars mentioned above do not intend to use it. But, as citizens, they are empowered with this right to demand the information which they want from IIT B, which is a public institution. Imagine if RTI had not been there. Maybe some generous bureaucrat would have shared the information then also (in a different context), but out of his/her discretion. What RTI does is to make transparency and accountability norms and not leave these fundamental tenets of democracy to some individual’s discretion.
The recent amendments to RTI Act passed in Lok Sabha bring the offices of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and State Information Commissioners (SICs) under the direct control of the government. CIC and SICs, in the original Act, have the independence of the level of Election Commissioners. These amendments bring that independence down to the level of CBI Director, Secretaries, or CEA. This means that the government of the day on any day can reduce the tenure of information commissioners and can also affect their salaries and other benefits.
Office of the information commissioners is the highest appellate authority in the right to information framework. Whose information do citizens demand? Government! Whose office is the guardian and protector of right to information? Information Commissioner! After the amendments who would control these offices through the instrument of service rules? Government! Can citizens expect fairness and openness, especially when the information demanded from the government might be against them?
The answer to this question is at the heart of resistance against the amendment to the RTI Act. You may be a supporter of this government or any other opposition party. But, as citizens, we must be aware of the rules and laws based on which we are governed. We have to make a choice, do we want to get governed by a transparent and accountable government—that is in future also—or by a government which takes a decision in an opaque and arbitrary manner and does not make it available for public knowledge and consequent checks and balances?