Pandemic: A boon for Right to Information activism in India

By Pratik Nath, Cibita G*

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the dynamics of operations in a tremendous manner. Many people have adopted and grown oblivious to online video meetings, lectures and conference to maintain social distancing. The lockdown has also increased digital access to many sections of the society with increasing usage of web technologies by the rural population. These alternate channels have helped to reach to larger sections of society in a more cost-effective way which might have been otherwise impossible. RTI users and activists have leveraged these advantages to create awareness and debate about various aspects of the RTI Act.

Increased RTI activism

  • One of the major movements organised as part of this initiative is the RTI katta. It is a platform where various stakeholders including senior bureaucrats, officers and common people can participate and discuss about the Act. Key highlights of this was that once participants discussed the fact that High Courts of Calcutta and Karnataka have issued judgements that mandate information commissions to dispose cases withing 45 days, they filed a legal notice to the Maharashtra Information Commission to draw up a plan to implement similar directions.
  • Another group has been organised by an RTI activist from Madhya Pradesh. Rahul Singh, who is the current Information Commissioner of Madhya Pradesh, is chairing and moderating the discussions.
  • Cross-country discussions have also been held to discuss and draw learnings from the systems in various countries.

How proactive information disclosure helps in policy making

The lockdown has also created the need for collecting and analysing accurate information to aid quick and transparent implementation of public policies. The crisis has increased the awareness for proactive disclosure of information on relief measures, public distribution system and health care announced for elderly, women, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged segments of the society. It has advocated the “Right to know” principle over the “Need to know” principle.

RTI queries about prices of masks, PPE kits and other medical facilities have tried to increase transparency and save public funds. RTI queries on migrant workers count and status have pressurized the Government to nudge Railways and hospitals to make the necessary arrangements for safe travel and accommodation of the affected workers.

What could be done to improve transparency?

For a more transparent system, three aspects must be built.

  • In the supply side, the government should build digital systems to acquire and store necessary information.
  • PIOs must be adequately posted to respond to the queries actively. And the major challenge would be to bring in the mindset amongst the public officers for immediately resolution of queries.
  • And more awareness needs to be created among the public regarding the Act and how it should be used for empowerment.

Reaching out to the disabled community amidst the pandemic

RTI activism in the area of disability rights has achieved great strides in the pandemic. Great work has been done in this field by the Javed Abidi foundation (JAF) in collaboration with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Disability Rights India Foundation (DRIF). In the midst of pandemic, they successfully organized three workshops to spread the awareness of RTI among disabled people. We talked with eminent RTI activist Mr. Venkatesh Nayak to get a glimpse of what they were trying to achieve and how their workshop received an overwhelming response during the pandemic.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) act of 2016 was a major milestone which empowered disabled people in India by safeguarding their dignity and position in society. RTI act of 2005 is an effective tool to advocate for the implementation of the Rights of Person with Disability (RPWD) act of 2016. The aim of the workshops conducted by JAF in collaboration with CHRI and DRIF was to educate the participants about how they can use RTI act to gather vital information from the Government to enforce their rights. Three workshops were conducted in three different zones, namely East, West and South. All the workshops were conducted virtually through Zoom in the months of October and November 2020. This initiative was met with enthusiastic response. Many people were able to join these workshops virtually, which otherwise might not have been possible for them, if the workshops took place physically. The participants were taught how to file RTI under many Central Government Departments, how to file First Appeal under RTI and other nitty-gritties of RTI. Sign language instructors were also present every workshop.

As we can see, in many domains, the Pandemic has been a boon for RTI activism in India. Whether be it due to the ease of attending virtual sessions or due to the increased curiosity among public to find out data of different sectors, RTI activism in India has benefited from the Pandemic to some extent. In India, RTI is still in a very nascent stage where less than 0.5% of the population file RTI annually. Let us hope we can sustain this increased activism in the long run and move towards a more transparent India.

Check out the fantastic work that CHRI and JAF are doing through the following links-

  1. CHRI Link: https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/
  2. Javed Abidi Foundation Facebook Page Link: https://www.facebook.com/JavedAbidiFoundation/

References:

*PGP 2, Second Year Students in Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

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