Celebrating the 8th anniversary of India’s Right to Information Act
On the eve of the 8th anniversary of India’s Right to Information Act, it is worth remembering that this anniversary honours not just a popular legislation called RTI Act, 2005 but also the legion of heroes of the RTI movement. Some heroes of this revolutionary movement are iconic. They earned recognition and love for their pioneering work, for kindling a vast grassroots movement by spreading awareness and detailed knowledge of the RTI Act and RTI rules. With zeal and foresight, they created the first generation of people who knew how to draft RTI applications and speak up at appeal hearings. These people in turn mentored thousands of others, and created a huge wave of RTI work for both administration and media. These thousands of nameless, faceless RTI applicants pursuing their lonely quest to hold the administration accountable in every city, town and village, are making government officials less arrogant. They are forcing the government to respect the might of the common man, more than they ever have since Independence.
However, it is worth remembering that the government, parliament and administration are not entirely villains – although sometimes, it may seem that way. Because, to cope with this flood of requests for information, this very government created, within a very short time after October 2005, a vast administrative machinery consisting of lakhs of Public Information Officers, First Appellate Authorities and Information Commissioners.
Remember, in the 55 preceding years of Independent India, most government organizations were represented before the public by one or two Public Relations Officer (PROs). The task of a PRO was largely to respond to the members of the public with a cup of tea and a friendly “no” to any request for information – or, at best, to grudgingly give some sketchy information.
Considering all this, the progress that has been made on both sides of the administrative table since 2005 is astonishing.
Paradoxically, our collective unhappiness with the implementation of Right to Information is largely because this legal right is being used by so many people! RTI Act is giving rise to literally tens of thousands of interactions with various organs of administration, which simply did not exist before 2005.
At first sight, it may seem as though the pent-up fury of 55 years of Independence has been released; there is a flood that is unstoppable. But wait, let us not get carried away by rhetoric. Consider these facts:
· GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES: Roughly half of these RTI interactions (applications and appeals) are of government employees (or former government employees) trying to get their service matters resolved – matters relating to transfers, promotions, selections, pensions etc.
· AGGRIEVED CITIZENS: The other half of RTI interactions are primarily of private citizens seeking to resolve their own private grievances. Some of these RTI applications and appeals are oblique complaints – complaints ingeniously worded in the form of RTI applications. Other RTI applications are for follow-up of complaints or representations to various government departments, quasi-judicial or even judicial forums. RTI is enabling them to actively pursue their fundamental rights.
· PUBLIC-INTEREST CAMPAIGNERS, ACADEMICS & WHISTLE-BLOWERS. A small but significant percentage of RTI interactions are concerning matters of public interest. Some people are using RTI systematically to focus on certain aspects of public policy, and they are putting out well-reasoned, thoroughly researched reports to the government. Simultaneously, knowledgeable citizens and political activists, angered by the bad quality of administration, are trying to enforce accountability and expose scams in order to make a point. They are filing complaints, public interest litigations (PILs), and potent media reports. This activity is both revolutionary and subversive. On the one hand, it is pushing the administration to self-correct. On the other hand, it is stoking anti-establishment sentiments by heaping shame on all government and administration authorities, by using its own laws, rules and mechanisms.
The government responds by studiously ignoring these modern-day revolutionaries, and reserving the Padma awards and state benefits for cricketers, bollywood actors and other celebrities. RTI activists are daily doing the thankless job of cleaning up the administration in their villages, talukas, district-headquarters and small towns. Unrecognized, unrewarded but struggling every day, these people are chipping away at bad governance. But we, as a nation, continue to ignore them and waste our admiration on trivial celebrities. Even the common man pays only token respect to RTI activists, often only after they have been assaulted or murdered.
On this anniversary, let us remember the heroic persons whom we may have the privilege of knowing. But more so, let us dedicate it to the nameless and faceless RTI Activist – that man or woman who walks or rides a scooter in sun and rain, and insistently goes to the offices of various public authorities, filing RTI applications, appeals, attending hearings, seeking justice from an unjust and insensitive system.
Every so often, someone raises the question of who is an “RTI activist”, as opposed to a mere “RTI applicant” or “aggrieved person” or “information seeker”. On this anniversary, let us remember that this is largely an imaginary distinction. Right to Information Act 2005 has empowered the common man to question government servants and hold them accountable by corresponding with lakhs of Public Information Officers (PIOs), thousands of First Appellate Authorities, and over a hundred Information Commissioners in various States. The term “RTI activist” generally encompasses the entire civil society movement consisting of lakhs of independent citizens, plus a few hundred NGOs, who are questioning the administration on various issues, public or private.
No two RTI activists are the same. Some are habituated to filing hundreds of RTI applications to a wide range of government authorities on a variety of issues. They unearth hundreds of documents and get them published by the media, throwing light on a wide variety of issues. Other activists drill deep into one or two issues for years. Some activists frequently file first and second appeals, doggedly attend hearings, try to get the PIO penalized, and even try to get thousands of pages of information free-of-charge if the PIO missed his deadlines. Others try to get their individual or collective grievances redressed by using RTI applications as a pressure tactic. Some are neighbourhood watchdogs, supervising the municipality’s garbage-disposal, encroachment-clearance, hawkers, roads etc. Others are RTI trainers, helpers, mentors, webmasters, journalists etc., who find fulfillment by helping other people file RTI applications and appeals.
A defining characteristic of RTI activists is that they are usually leaderless and cannot be tamed. They are fiercely independent and notoriously difficult to organize into hierarchical groups. Generally, they spend money from their own pockets. Unlike NGOs, RTI activists get no government funding or corporate sponsors. They are usually unable to conform to organizational norms of behavior, and hence, cannot form associations or political parties.
Possibly the only common factor that characterizes all RTI activists is that they seek RULE OF LAW – which clearly has been eroded by decades of party politics, influence-yielding, favour-seeking and quid-quo-pro deals. As a rule, RTI activists are trying to get various rules and laws implemented. The constant basis of their actions is to compare laws, rules, norms, manuals, guidelines, circulars and terms & conditions with the administration’s failure to perform on various fronts, especially service delivery, due diligence, vigilance and law & order enforcement.
The RTI movement is an ongoing revolution. It is a statement of the common man’s faith in the democratic system that, though corroded and crooked, still somehow works. It is an authentic grassroots-level Satyagraha movement that consists of persistently doing the rounds of government offices, seeking information and justice. Despite suffering many defeats and insults from the administration and even the judiciary, RTI activists refuse to quit, refuse to yield to cynicism and pessimism. They refuse to accept the all-pervasive belief that this nation of ours cannot be fixed!
On 12th October, 2013, we will not only salute eight years of RTI Act 2005, but also bow our heads to this massive body of men and women in cities, towns and villages, whose faith in the system just keeps them marching, stumbling along year after year in the direction of good governance. They are the keepers of the sacred flame of India.