Most of you must have heard about RTI being mentioned in news items of and on. It is an acronym for the Right to Information Act. The Right to Information (RTI) is the incarnation of prosperous democracy which indicates promotion of human-rights and dignity. United Nations General Assembly proclaimed September 28 as the ‘International Day for Universal Access to Information’ so as to raise the awareness about people’s right to access government information while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance.
To quote, from Bhagavad Gita, Chapter IV, Verse 17; “The truth about action must be known and the truth of inaction also must be known; even so, the truth about prohibited action must be known. For mysterious are the ways of action.” Meaning thereby the intricacies of action are very hard to understand. Therefore, one should know properly what action is, what forbidden action is, and what inaction is. Even the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi opined that “the real ‘Swaraj’ will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all to resist authority when abused.”
Essence of Information and Right to Information
Information is the currency that citizens require to contribute in the existence and governance of society. RTI offers an invaluable tool to find out information that can make their lives better.
“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority” said Benjamin Franklin. RTI symbolises advancement of human civilization and harmonizes the public interest. Its basic object is to empower the citizens by promoting transparency and thus eliminating corruption and making system responsive for the cause of people. It goes without saying that an informed citizen is better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and RTI is a channel to transform the civil society into a force that ensures accountability from the government and thereby increasing the trust of people.
Right to Information in India
From secrecy of information (under the Official Secrets Act, 1923) to right to information, the RTI has evolved from the Freedom of Information Act, 2002 to the Right to Information Act, 2005. ‘Sheelam Param Bhushanam’ (character is the highest virtue) and accordingly, RTI aims to ensure ‘energetic’ and ‘effective’ performance by ‘pubic authority’ for better governance. As such, the Constitution of India does not explicitly grant it but it is implicit in the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) read with Article 21 dealing with right to life and supported by Constitutional remedies to approach the courts. Dynamic interpretation of these provisions, over a period of time, has lead to the advancement of RTI in India.
Insight to Right to Information Law
The RTI law provides that any citizen irrespective of age-group, caste, colour, creed, gender or religion by oral/written/electronic means can ask any ‘public authority’ throughout the country either personally/electronically or by post in English, Hindi or regional language any information/record (including electronic format) which involves ‘public interest’ without quoting reasons for the required information.
It is pertinent to mention here that a ‘public authority’ is any institution/authority/body of government established/constituted by or under the Constitution, or by any law of Parliament/State Legislature, or by notification of Government. It also includes the bodies owned, controlled or substantially financed by the Government including such Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Public authorities are duty bound to maintain all records duly catalogued and indexed.
The practical regime of RTI provides a fixed time-frame (within thirty days of request but if it concerns life or liberty of a person then within forty-eight hours) to supply the information. The applicants are required to pay a nominal fee which is exempted for disadvantaged persons and also, further reasonable fee towards the cost of providing the information. The law also endorses a platform for appeal to the aggrieved parties. Ensuring a gateway for quick search of information, a digital portal has been set up for the details of Public Information Officers (PIOs), Appellate Authorities besides access to RTI related information/disclosures on the website by various ‘public authorities’.
Public Interest vs. Protected Interest
Law maintains a perfect balance between ‘public interest’ and ‘protected interest’. If the information pertains to an individual causing unwarranted invasion of privacy and has no connection with the public activity/interest, it cannot be disclosed in normal course. To illustrate, Annual Confidential Report, Income-tax Return, Bank Account, Property statement, Medical bill hinting ailment etc.
To add, there is no obligation to disclose forbidden/fiduciary information besides any disclosure which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India including intelligence and security etc.
Meaningful participation of people is vital component of the governance but such participation can be effective if people have information about the way government business is transacted. Transparency and accountability are the twin pillars of good governance and RTI has successfully instilled and strengthened the faith of the people. It would go a long way in the creation of a welfare state as envisaged by the framers of our Constitution. To wrap up, to ask is to ‘ACT’ (Action Changes Things)!
— The writer is Assistant Professor, University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh
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