GOV & SOCIAL ISSUES

Right To Information

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What is RTI?

Right to Information (RTI) is an act of the Parliament of India which sets out the rules and procedures regarding citizens' right to information. It replaced the former Freedom of Information Act, 2002.


Principles:

  • Maximum disclosure, open government, limited exceptions.

  • It enables both the government functionaries to discharge their duty to give information easily, as well as the citizens to get information without running from pillar to post.


Historical background

  • 1766- World's first Freedom of Press Act was established in Stockholm.

  • 1789- The French Constitution, Declaration of Human & Civil Rights included article 14, which gave the right to access information from those who are responsible to the public.

  • 1946- UNGA passed a resolution which stated that Right to Information is Fundamental Right.

  • Universal declaration of Human Rights.

  • 1948- provides everyone the right to seek, receive, information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

  • 1966- USA enacted a federal law establishing the public's right to obtain information from federal government agencies.

  • International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights, 1966- everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression, the freedom to seek and impart information and ideas of all kinds.

  • Genesis of RTI law in India started in 1986, through a judgement of Supreme Court, in which it directed that freedom of speech and expression provided under Article 19 of the Constitution clearly implies Right to Information, as, without information the freedom of speech and expression cannot be fully used by the citizens.

  • NCPRI (National Campaign for People's Right to Information) was founded in 1966 with the objective  of seeking a legislation on RTI.

  • Later, Shourie Committee was set-up to draft a bill on Freedom of Information 2002. Despite Presidential assent, this bill never came into effect due to change in political power.

  • Centre-State relations: Even before the Central FOI Act was passed in 2002, some of the states introduced their own right to information legislation. The first amongst these was Tamil Nadu (1997) which was followed by Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Karnataka (2000), Delhi (2001), Maharashtra (2002), Assam (2002), Madhya Pradesh (2003) and Jammu & Kashmir (2004). Of these, Madhya Pradesh had taken steps to enact a law on this subject as early as 1997 but failed due to lack of consent by the Centre.

  • Finally, in 2006, an all encapsulating national act with the objective of providing and seeking information came into existence.


Right to Information Act of 2005

  • Provisions of Act:

  1. Suo motu disclosure of information by public authorities.

  2. Time period- public authorities are required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. In case of matters involving a petitioner's life and liberty, the information has to be provided within 48 hours.

  3. Appointment of Information Commissioners.

  4. Section 4 is a commitment and promise of the Parliament to computerize and build a network across the country and disseminate information to the public at regular intervals.

  5. Section 8 mentions exemptions against furnishing information under RTI, when it is in the larger interest of national security.

  6. No reasons are required to be given for requesting the information sought under an RTI application.

  7. 3rd party information is restricted to share under Section 11.

  • Objectives:

  1. Empower the citizens

  2. Promote transparency and accountability

  3. Contain corruption

  4. Enhance peoples' participation in democratic process

  5. Reduction in abuse of power


Is it a Fundamental right?

  • Although Right to Information is not included as a Fundamental Right in the Constitution of India, it protects the fundamental rights to Freedom of Expression and Speech under Article 19(1)(a) and Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 guaranteed by the Constitution.

  • It is implicit under Article 19.


Scope of RTI

  1. Extends to the whole of India

  2. Public authority- means any authority or body or institution of self government established or constituted-

  • by or under the Constitution

  • by any other law made by Parliament/State Legislature

  • by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government, and includes any-
    body owned, controlled or substantially financed;
    non-Government organization substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government.

  • Exceptions - An application can be rejected if the disclosure of information:
    Affects the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of India or would lead to incitement of an offence.
    Is forbidden to be published by any court, tribunal or if disclosure may constitute contempt of court.
    Including information such as trade secrets commercial confidence, intellectual property.

  • Information- any material in any form, including electronic form; and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by public authority under any other law applicable at that time


  • 2019 amendment

  • Gives the Centre the power to fix the tenures and salaries of state and central information commissioners, which are statutorily protected under the RTI Act.

  • The Act proposes to replace the fixed 5 year tenure to as much prescribed by government.

  • Rationale given- CIC (statutory) but its conditions of service are equivalent to SC judges and constitutional bodies like the Ele tin Commission. Causes legal hindrance -IC order can be challenged in HC.

  • Criticism- This move will dilute the autonomy and independence of ICs.


SC judgements and CIC affirmations

  1. Supreme Court of India, in November 2019, upheld the decision of Delhi High Court bringing the office of Chief Justice of India under the purview of Right to Information (RTI) Act.

  2. As of 2014, CIC has affirmed that private institutions and NGOs (privatized public utility companies) receiving over 95% of their infrastructure funds from the government fall under the purview of this act.

  3. Despite CIC's stand that political parties are answerable to citizens, due to an amendment of 2013, there is an ongoing case has that these parties be brought in the fold of RTI.

  4. Law Commission in 2018 suggested that BCCI wielded State-like powers since it controlled policy formulation related to cricket, therefore is within the act.

  5. Political candidates:
    Declaration of assets criminal cases, educational background.
    SC made it mandatory for political parties to publish criminal cases.


Bodies involved in governance

The Right to information in India is governed by two major bodies:

  • Central Information Commission (CIC) – Chief Information commissioner who heads all the central departments and ministries- with their own Public Information Officers (PIO). CICs are directly under the President of India.

  • State Information Commissions – State Public Information Officers or SPIOs head over all the state departments and ministries. The SPIO office is directly under the corresponding State Governor.

  • Both Information Commissions are independent bodies and Central Information Commission has no jurisdiction over the State Information Commission.


Appellate Authorities:

  • The first appeal lies within the public authority itself which is made to an officer designated as the First Appellate Authority by the concerned public authority. The First Appellate Authority happens to be a senior-ranking officer.

  • The second appeal lies with the Central Information Commission.


Process of filing an RTI application

  1. To seek information, a request may be made in writing to the Central Public Information Officer, or filed online at https://rtionline.gov.in

  2. To file an application to a central government department, an application fee of Rs. 10/- is attached in the form of Indian Postal Order.

  3. The PIO decides to reject an application if the information requested is covered by an exemption.

  4. Reports say that, as many as 3.2 crore Indians have filed applications since the Right to Information (RTI) Act came into being in October 2005.

  5. CIC's annual report for 2018-2019: Over 13.70 lakh applications were filed, out of which, over 64,000 were rejected under various provisions of the law.


RTI vs Right to Privacy

  1. They are complementary as well as in conflict with each other.

  2. While RTI seeks information,  R2P protects it instead.

  3. Similarity- Both of them function to safeguard citizens' right to liberty and against State's overreach.

  4. The Supreme Court upholds Section 8(1)(j) of the Act, which mentions-Personal information can be denied if it infringes an individual's privacy and serves no public interest; unless the CPIO or SPIO, or any other appellate authority says otherwise.


RTI vs Official Secrets Act, 1923

  1. OSA is a British time law, which meant to withhold information by marking certain documents as confidential. However, these were (/are) not always limited to diplomacy, national security, state secrets etc.

  2. Whenever there is a conflict between the two, the provisions of RTI override those of OSA.

  3. 2nd ARC recommended that OSA should be revised in light of RTI.

  4. Sections 8 and 22 of the RTI Act itself mentions that information can be accessed owing to larger public interest.


RTI and Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2014

  1. The two laws can be called 'twin-sisters', in the sense that information sought, if believed to be unethical or illegal, is brought to the notice of the public, whilst offering protection to the one who does it.

  2. Unfortunately, the whistleblowers, or RTI activists, have had to meet drastic fates and have been attacked, and even killed.

  3. Objective of WBPA- To prevent whistleblowers from victimization.

  4. Even after 7 years, the Act has not been enforced.

  5. 2nd ARC has also expressed the need to settle a law to protect whistleblowers.

  6. Countries like Canada, USA, UK have 'one stop shop' approach to receive, manage, and investigate all whistleblowing matters; and independent agencies to look into proper implementation of the same.

  7. Along these lines, all CPIOs have been directed to remove the details of RTI petitioners from public domain

  8. Solution- anonymous complaints.


Challenges and Solutions

Accountability

Problems

  • Lack of clear accountability through appropriate government rules.

  • Administrative hurdles-vacancies in offices.

  • Lack of controls to measure the level/effectiveness of implementation.

  • Huge level of pendency of cases both at national and state levels.

  • Laxity by public authorities in proactively furnishing information.


Solutions

  • Role clarity-Specific responsibilities, aligned with the Act.

  • RTI Implementation Cell at State Level.

  • Use of IT - Real time monitoring of applications.

  • Third party audits should be institutionalized.


Efficiency

Problems

  • Low level of implementation in stipulated time.

  • Poor Record management.

  • Inadequate Training/Knowledge.

  • Morale of PIOs.

Solutions

  • Use of IT Re-organise information system to be RTI friendly.

  • SOP templates should be shared with the Centre and State govt.

  • Common IT applications for ICs and Public Authorities.

  • All public authorities must digitize their records so that there is little need for the citizens to requesr information formally.

  • E-governance -Suo motu disclosure (E.g. Rajasthan Jan Soochna Portal, Punjab grievance redressal portal, my gov).


Awareness

Problems

  • Use is limited. Civil Society Organisations and media.

  • Too legalistic for ordinary citizens.

  • Lack of awareness - especially rural population and woman.


Solutions

  • Social awareness and the knowledge of their rights among the masses.

  • Publicity campaign (like BBBP, consumer awareness).

  • Prominent displays the Public Authority offices.

  • Using Common Services Centres.


Benefits or Overall Importance of RTI

  • Strengthening participatory democracy.

  • Makes the government more accountable.

  • Improves decision making by public authority by removing unnecessary secrecy.

  • A new bureaucracy was not created, rather it mandated officials in every office to change their attitude.


The Delhi HC calls it, rightly so, the "Sunshine Act"- This law provides us a priceless opportunity to redesign the processes of governance, particularly at the grass roots level where the citizens’ interface is maximum.

As Thomas Jefferson (3rd US President) has quoted, "Information is the currency of democracy".

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