Information is an essential tool in present times, an instrument through which the whole economy could be destroyed or made depending on the people who have this information. As information carries value, it creates the basis of knowledge, provoking thought processes in a person and making them alert and aware.
"Power is derived from knowledge and information is the basic component of knowledge."
The significance of information is mentioned everywhere, from Vedas to literature and the Constitution.
Rig Veda says, "let the noble thoughts come to us from every site."
The Bible says, "you shall know the truth and the truth will make you feel free."
Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India says that every citizen has freedom of speech and expression.
Historical Background of RTI in India
Everything today is based on facts, figures, and data created by experts and analysed by officials. A minor issue in the official data could lead to blockage of systems; its misuse could empower officials to use it for their benefit. It is shocking to know that the right to information was unavailable to people of the largest democracy for 58 years. They were unaware of the information held by the government.
Why was information kept a secret?
The Official Secrets Act, 1923, made by the British government, has provisions to keep the government workings a secret and prohibit public servants from disclosing information to the general public.
Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 restricted public servants from sharing unofficial and unpublished records without permission by the head of the department.
Public servants took oaths for not disclosing information to the general public.
Other acts such as the All India Services Rule 9, Archives Policy Resolution of 22 December 1972, and Rule 11 of the Central Civil Services also reflect the same point.
Concept of RTI
The concept of having the right to information as a human right is mentioned in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also protected by the Indian Constitution as ruled by the Allahabad High Court in the historical case of Miss Indira Gandhi when she was denied the required details when charged with electoral malpractices defining it a secret under Section 123 Bluebook. Ultimately when this matter was challenged in the highest court of the land, she imposed an emergency in the country, known as the dark era. When the emergency was over, and new elections were held, implementing RTI was the agenda of several election manifestos. Transparency, accountability, and openness are the three essential elements of good governance, and these can only be achieved when we have the right to information. In State of UP vs Raj Narain, the judgment made by KK Mathew was that every government data should be made public to protect the very motto of democracy that is transparency. "Freedom of speech and expression includes within its scope right to information. No government can survive without accountability. The basic rule about accountability is that people should have information about the functioning of the government" was ruled by the court in SP Gupta vs Union of India.
Formation and the Role of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in the RTI Movement
In a small village of Rajasthan, people were not adequately paid for their work, and they could not file a complaint because the official records said they were paid appropriately. This minor issue shows what happens when information is not available to people. Therefore, it was necessary to help the poor get their fair share and stop corrupt practices by officials.
Mrs Aruna Roy observed this, and she left her prestigious Indian Administrative Services for this cause: to handle information in the right hands for audit and help the rural poor. It takes us to the grassroots of RTI. She was accompanied by Shankar Singh, qualified in rural communications, and Nikhil Dey, who abandoned his studies abroad to work for this cause.
Together, they came to a small village in Rajasthan and started living like typical villagers. They started conducting "jan sunwahis" to hear the problems faced by the marginalised groups. Soon they were accompanied by several villagers who came together daily to share their problems and started working towards solutions. Politicians, private players, villagers, officials, everyone was invited to these sunwahis and were given a fair chance to express and defend themselves. These sunwahis were then conducted in several villages, and soon the organisation of people got registered as Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).
Initially, they demanded minimum wages for the workers, which was not fulfilled; they were not allowed to look into the documents of muster roll and payment records. From there, the demand changed from wages to information. The sarpanches and other government employees refused to provide the data even when the collector gave written orders. Finally, the government said they would be given printed copies of the documents, which were rejected as the authorities did not officially sign them. Therefore, no report could be filed against them. The MKSS continued its dharna until the government said they had issued notice to India's Press Council. This small step of sunwahis played a significant role in making people aware of the corrupt practices of the government.
This powerful statement made by Mrs Aruna Roy clearly defines what RTI is and how necessary it is for a democracy.
"It is not about changing the government; it is about changing the systems. If you do not change the system, you may change the government again, but the system will remain the same. So RTI is the law that would change the system."
NCPRI and Shourie Committee
The National Campaign for People's Right to Information, with other activists and the Press Council of India, under the guidance of Justice PB Savant, drafted the RTI draft bill in 1996, which was sent to the Shourie Committee for recommendations.
Then the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government promised to implement the law in the same regard but did not do anything. Even after endless meetings with the CM, there was no progress in this regard. So MKSS decided to continue with their dharna after being informed about the release of notice to the Press Council of India. However, the provisions were not congruent with what was drafted by the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in 1995 and the NCPRI draft bill in 1996.
After that, a committee was set up under HD Shourie to form legislation from the government's side. However, it was not suitable as it gave people enough power to seek redressal if not provided with the required information. By this time, several states had implemented their laws relating to RTI. Under pressure to fulfil the agenda set up by the NDA government, they introduced the Freedom of Information Bill, 2000, in the Parliament, which got the president's assent on 6 January 2003. Eventually, this Act was also unable to function accurately because of the ending tenure of the NDA government. In the case of Union of India vs Association of Democratic Reforms in 2002, the ADR demanded disclosure of information of personal background of government officials to the public for the free and transparent electoral process. The Delhi High Court ruled that all background information should be made public for a fair electoral process, and the same was ruled by the Supreme Court when the matter was challenged there. It was another significant achievement for RTI activists to empower people.
RTI Act, 2005
Since the Freedom of Information Act, 2003 lacked jurisdiction and redressal if the demand is not fulfilled even after filing of RTI. A new draft bill named Right to Information Bill, 2004 was presented in Parliament, which contained the provision for jurisdiction and how to see redressal if the RTI demand was not met. It fixed the tenure and salary of the Information Commissioners to function as an independent body. It also stated the information which could be kept secret for national security. Lok Sabha passed the Bill on 11 May 2005 and Rajya Sabha on 12 May 2005. It got printed in the official Gazette of India on 15 June 2005. The Bill got the president's assent on 21 June 2005 and finally became an Act on 12 October 2005. The Act was a big success for all RTI activists and common people fighting for so long.
In his speech after winning Ramon Magsaysay Award for RTI, Mr Arvind Kejriwal said,
"RTI has emerged as an extremely powerful tool in the hands of most ordinary people to fight injustice and corruption. It has given voice to the voiceless. It has led to honest officers being protected and the corrupt ones being prosecuted. But most important of all, it has led the people of India to feel empowered. Empowered to stand up and demand answers from the government."
For India, RTI has been the most successful Act from the last 14 years since it was implemented, but the recent changes proposed with the Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019 paves the way to ruin it. It states that the fixed tenure and salary of the Information Commissioners will now be decided by the government, which is a sign of threat. In a way, the independence of ICs will now be in politicians' hands, which could lead to their transfers if they work against some politicians.
However, the solution for the better functioning of the RTI Act is to reverse these amendments and fill the vacancies. In 2018, there were only three ICs appointed by the government, because of which 26,000 RTIs were pending. Moreover, till now, four posts have been vacant. Therefore, it is necessary to remove government control to make this process fair. Also, the ICs should be made more independent to make RTI stronger. Furthermore, civil societies, political parties, and NGOs should be included under the ambit of RTI.