RTI and Governance: the distance yet to be travelled         


I thank Aruna Roy ji for inviting me today to this important conference. I am particularly happy to participate because, in another capacity, I had heard a good deal about the perceived benefits and limitations of this important piece of legislation.


The principle of information being made available to those affected by it is an ancient one. In our own times, numerous international covenants have subscribed to it. Despite it, governments have been slow to give it a practical shape. Apart from Sweden’s transparency law of 1776, only 20 countries had such a law till 1995. Thereafter, the pace picked up and till 2011, over 85 countries had enacted and implemented legislation pertaining to it. Civil society pressure in most cases played a critical role in shaping opinion.



In our own country, progress towards right to information legislation was slow and hesitant. The culture of secrecy was pervasive; it was compounded by low levels of literacy and ignorance of the public about government procedures.


The impulse for change came from demands for minimum wages for landless labourers, as also from environmentalists and advocates of human rights, and was helped by decisions of the higher judiciary. An initial effort to legislate faltered in 2002; the law finally saw light of day in 2005. Its title and substance also registered the important transition from freedom to right.


The concept of right to information resonates deeply with the notion of citizenship. The objective of the Right to Information Act, 2005 is spelt out in its preamble. Democracy, it asserts, requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information is essential to contain corruption and to hold government and its instrumentalities accountable to the governed and to harmonize it within a framework of operational efficiency and confidentiality of sensitive information.




The RTI Act of 2005 marked a move from opaqueness to the beginning  of  an  era  of  transparency.  ‘It  thus    fundamentally



restructures the debate on governance from what should be revealed to what must be kept secret.’


Twelve years after its enactment, the official view, as reflected in the latest annual report of the Central Information Commission, is reasonably satisfactory. Reports of the State Information Commissions paint a varied picture. The perception within information providing agencies often is that much of demand is frivolous and vexatious.  The civil society view, however, is that its implementation remains inefficient and as a result, transparency and accountability seems to be under threat.


Experts cite poor record-keeping practices within bureaucracy, lack of infrastructure and staff for running information commissions as the reason for this. Despite it, the culture of transparency brought about by the RTI Act has empowered the citizens and emboldened them to seek information and seek accountability.


What is the element of truth in these perceptions? The different ingredients of the favourable and unfavourable perceptions therefore need to be segregated and analyzed.


Some time back a former Central Information Commissioner, writing about his personal experience, divided RTI applications into 4 categories: (a) those who hope to expose corruption or arbitrariness and improve governance (b) those who wish to correct


a wrong and get justice (c) those who wish to blackmail persons who have allegedly violated the law and (d) those who wish to harass public officials to get undue favours. He added that applications in the third and fourth category did no exceed 10% of the total.


In the first place is the principle and practice of transparency in governance. This is critical to the notion of accountability. It is the corner stone of good governance. It ensures that actions and decisions taken by public officials are subject to oversight so as to guarantee that government initiatives meet their stated objectives and respond to the needs of the community they are meant to be benefiting, thereby contributing to better governance and poverty reduction. This accountability could be legal, political or social or may even cover all these aspects. It can be, and has been, sought through elected representatives at municipal, state or parliamentary levels. The RTI, however, adds a new dimension to it since in this case, accountability is sought by the citizen directly at individual level.


The hard question is about the efficacy of the Act in actual implementation. To answer this, the experience of twelve years is to be analyzed critically from the viewpoint of the information-seeker particularly amongst the poor and needy and those in rural areas. It is here that response of the information giving agencies,


and the rules and procedures under which information is sought to be denied, becomes critical.


A harsh reality cannot be overlooked. According to credible civil society activists and organizations, a good number of information-seekers on sensitive issues have been threatened and some even lost their lives. Specific allegations in this regard have generally gone unanswered.


It is evident that as in other walks of life, surrender of power is resisted. Record shows that procedural devices will be resorted to. One critic has opined that many information-giving agencies view the Act as “the right to reject, deny, obfuscate.” The current controversy over the new RTI Rules made public recently has to be seen in that context.


Many in this audience know that much of the information being sought can easily be made public but has not been done thanks to our legacy of colonial rule and closed governance. A typical case is about land records. A Central Information Commissioner has observed that about 66 % of litigation in courts is about land. It results in loss of GDP. If land records are updated and access to them made easier, it would have a positive impact on pendency before the judiciary and would lead to all round improvement in governance.




The same holds good for educational qualifications of those seeking public office and the requirement to comply with prescribed limits.


The question of exemptions under section 8(1)(a) of the Act has been discussed extensively. The exemptions for the listed security agencies are formulated very generally and could do with precise definitions. Without it, the PIOs has a lot of space to define overarching terms like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘integrity.’ Some judicial rulings have been helpful in this regard. The same holds for invoking the economic interests clause.




Any serious discussion on the RTI Act must be premised on its intent and purpose, as spelt out in the preamble. The letter of law is one aspect of the matter; its intent is another. Today it is undeniable that the Act in the years it has been in existence has changed the public discourse and has brought into being a new framework and a new imagination within which governance is to be viewed. By the same token, the wide-spread public perception about high level corruption has given impetus to a new imagination about countering it. The RTI Act is not an anti-corruption act but given the level of transparency it is intended to achieve can contribute to this objective. It is the beginning  of  a long  journey.  Since  other


nations started on this journey earlier, we can also benefit by taking cognizance of their experience and best practices.


Much depends on the functioning of information commissions. They are critical to the RTI regime and must be endowed with the resources for discharging their functions efficiently. Available data


indicates high levels of pendency; this cannot but impede the achievement of the stated objectives. The only corrective is public pressure. The CIC’s decision in May this year that all cases filed in 2015 and 2016 will be cleared by the end of this year is a step in this direction. Another initiative by the government advising public bodies to get their proactive disclosure package pre-audited by a third party every year and report it to CIC should help reduce the load of unattended RTI applications.


Conferences like this will help raise public awareness. I wish you all success in this crusade.


Jai Hind.