The Fate of RTI After One Year of Modi is a Bad Omen

The Narendra Modi  government came to power on two promises – governance and development. In the past year, the latter has shown itself to be an agenda of growth benefitting the top 10 per cent. While a lingering hope remained that the promises of governance would be fulfilled, disillusionment has now replaced the promise of ‘acche din’. Governance and the Right to Information are intimately linked and participatory governance has been one of the most significant effects of the RTI movement, one where the common person engages with structures of power. The National Democratic Alliance government, however, is steadily and systematically blocking and undermining the access to information, pushing the country back into the opacity of its pre RTI days.

The Right to Information gave every Indian citizen a tool to fight an individual battle with socio-economic and political relevance. The value of the RTI can be seen in its huge acceptance as a part of the daily life of millions of Indians. An unknown fellow traveler in an airport said to me that one day the history of post-independent India will be defined as pre- and post-RTI.

The power elite has systematically sought to undermine the law and there have been attempts to dilute it from 2006, merely a year after its passage in Parliament. The impact of the law and the fears it evoked bring in the fundamental nature of its significance – for governance, for fighting the arbitrary use of power and corruption.

Death by vacancies

The Modi government’s attitude to the RTI has, from the very start, been one of malignant neglect and deliberate destruction. Event management and gimmicks have taken over while established systems for sharing information lie neglected. The PM promises to tweet but does not face citizens to answer obligatory queries under a law created for this purpose. In fact, the Central Information Commission, which has the mandate to channel applications to the PMO, the Defence Ministry and other important ministries in the Union government, has been headless since August 23, 2014 – that is, for most of Modi’s tenure so far.

The non-appointment of the central Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) — a vacancy not filled for the past year, has been an issue of deep concern. There are a shocking 32,163 appeals pending before the commission, in addition to 7,419 complaints as of May 2015. The RTI Act vests administrative powers in the CIC, making the incumbent the head of office. The vacancy has sharpened the crisis in the commission. Three posts of information commissioners lie vacant as well.

An RTI was filed to inquire about the appointment of the CIC and the minutes of the meeting convened. The answer received in writing said that no minutes had been kept. For the right to information and good governance, record maintenance is a critical link to accountability.

Disclosing information is a fundamental requirement of a transparency regime. The free flow of information from government to citizen has promoted engagement in local and national issues. In the past year, we have seen an ominous lack of transparency. This government too fights shy of implementing section 4 of the RTI dealing with the proactive disclosure of information: “It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.”

Undermining 2nd generation laws

 The RTI has been followed by the demand for second generation laws that promote accountability and fight corruption. These laws include the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Lokpal Act, the Grievance Redress bill, and the Transparency of the Pre-legislative process.

With the use of the RTI, every citizen becomes a potential whistleblower who challenges corruption and the concentration of power. Since 2007, over 40 RTI users have been killed for accessing information. Applicants from weaker segments are often intimidated, threatened and even physically assaulted. Fifteen per cent the of RTI applicants interviewed for a recent survey reported that “being harassed or threatened was amongst the key constraints faced by them in trying to access information using the RTI Act.”

After the sustained agitation of a campaign and the families of slain whistleblowers the Act was passed on February 21, 2014. Unfortunately, the Modi government has dealt a huge blow to whistle blowers in the system by introducing an amendment which removed a safeguard disallowing prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if an official made a disclosure under the Whistleblowers Protection Act. People making disclosures about offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the wilful misuse of power or commission of criminal offences, will be liable for prosecution under the OSA, even if their disclosure is found to have merit.

The amendment prevents disclosures that allegedly affect the sovereignty and security of the state, as well as information relating to commercial confidence, the competitive position of a third party etc. The intent of the act is vitiated when such disclosure will not have any protection under the Act. The government is trying to abdicate its responsibility of protecting those who blow the whistle often at great cost to themselves.

No transparency

Lack of transparency is clear in the prevention of any consultative process prior to legislation. The RTI, NFSB, Domestic Violence Act etc. established a democratic consultative process of drafting legislation. Before being introduced in Parliament, the text of bills must be put in the public domain in compliance with the government’s stated Pre-legislative Consultation Policy (PLCP).

For instance, the text of the Whistleblower Protection amendment bill was only made public on May 11, 2015 after it was introduced in Parliament. RTI requests seeking information on the nature of amendments were denied on the pretext that the relevant file had been submitted to “higher authorities” for placing the matter before cabinet. Lack of availability of the text of the amendment bill thwarted discussion in the public domain about the appropriateness of the amendments.

U-turn on grievance redressal 

Since the RTI was passed, many applications have been filed to redress grievances with the delivery of public services. “Eighty percent of respondents in rural and 95% in urban areas stated that they used RTI in order to seek redress of their grievances.”

A legislation called the ‘Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill” was introduced in Parliament in December 2011. The bill provided a comprehensive grievance redress framework across the country to ensure the delivery of public services, social sector entitlements, and the accountability of delivery systems. The bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.

In December 2013 (during the debate on the Lokpal Bill), MPs from across party lines spoke out in support of the grievance redress bill including Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP. On February 12, 2014, J.P. Nadda of the BJP made a statement asserting that his party supported the passage of this bill. The BJP’s has broken its promise to enact these laws.

Lokpal on hold

The Lokpal & Lokayuktas Act has not been operationalized since its notification in January 2014 and the government has moved several amendments to it. The amendment bill called the “Lokpal and Lokayuktas and Other Related Law (Amendment) Bill, 2014”, has now been referred to a standing committee, indefinitely delaying the operationalization of the Act.

The RTI was passed in Parliament with a consensus that the law was necessary to provide access to services, rights and counter the imbalance of power. Access to information widened democratic space for all citizens. The RTI has been used by a cross-section of Indians, which includes ironically, both politicians and bureaucrats. It is a transformatory law designed to distribute power and enable people to realize constitutional promises. It facilitates the right to make informed choices, and demands the revision of anti-people decisions in a democracy.

This government has used the bureaucratic strategy of delay and dilution against the RTI. It should understand that the reaction of the 10 million users of the RTI, who form a formidable critical mass, cannot be ignored. The call of many of them to go “back to the streets” is an indication of the current crisis in governance and the RTI. Information is power, and no one recognises this more acutely than those who don’t want to share it.

(Aruna Roy is with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan)