Right to Information is an enabling tool for good governance. Why is Act required? How will it empower citizens? Will it make the government more accountable to the people? Who and what is included and what is excluded from the purview of the Right to Information? These and more questions are answered in this, the first of a three-part series on Right to information.
One of the essential prerequisites for the success of democracy is a vigilant enlightened and aware citizenry that is capable of participating in the affairs of the state. For meaningful participation by the people in public affairs, information must be provided to the people so that they are able to make rational choices from among the plethora of options. Information regarding their rights and entitlements relating to public welfare is imperative. So that they are able to criticize and question the authorities and power holders.
This will ensure transparency, openness, and accountability on the part of the policymakers and the implementing agencies. In reality governments in most countries are not eager to let the people have the necessary information easily. Despite democracy in several countries, the functioning of the government is secrecy oriented and the government has a strong tendency not to disclose information about its functioning to the general public.
No specific mention has been made about the right to information in the Indian constitution. As per various Supreme Court decisions and interpretations, it emanates from the Right to equality (Article 14), the Right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19 (1) (a), and the Right to life and personal liberty (Article 21).
However, Article 19 (1) (a) of the constitution, which includes the Right to freedom of speech and expression includes the Right to information. Article 21 of the constitution which guarantees every citizen the Right to life and personal liberty implies that the Right to know should be extended to all citizens. The government introduced the freedom of information bill 2000 in the Parliament and subsequently it was passed in 2002. The act could not be enforced due to the lack of notification in the Gazette of India.
This Act was repealed in 2005 and a new act, Right to Information was enacted. The demand for a Right to Information is the result of the continuous struggle of many activists and citizens groups. The genesis of this Right began with an NGO called the Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan, led by Aruna Roy, which started a movement in Rajasthan, demanding information relating to the government development projects.
This grassroots movement spread to other states and NGOs across India started asking for copies of bills and vouchers and names of persons who have been paid wages, mentioned in muster rolls, on the construction of schools, dispensaries, and small dams, and community centers. The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information was formed in the late 1990s, which became a broad-based platform for action.
The sustained campaign finally led to the political acceptance of the people’s right to information. The purpose of the Act is to provide the citizens’ rights and access to information under the control of public authorities and promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.
The word information means any material in any form, including Records, Documents, Memos, Emails, Advice, Opinions, Circulars, Orders, Log Books, Contracts, Reports, Papers, Samples, Models, and Electronic Data, and all information relating to any private body, which can be accessed by a public authority, under any law in force.
What does the term Public Authority mean? The Act says that any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted by or under the Constitution; or by any other law made by Parliament; or by any other law made by the state legislature; or by notification issued by or order by the appropriate government or non-government organizations substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government will be known as a Public Authority.
As per the Act, this covers both houses of Parliament, state legislature, and all municipal and Panchayati raj bodies. All public undertakings and institutions which are funded and controlled by the government are covered in the definition of Public Authority.
However, the Act does place some restrictions. The information available on RTI does not permit access to information on matters relating to sovereignty and integrity of India, national security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests of the state, relation with foreign states, incitement to any offence, or contempt of court. Information relating to breach of parliamentary privileges, commercial interests, trade secrets intellectual property rights, cabinet papers, and purely personal information also cannot be accessed under the Act.