By Nikhil Kedia*
RTI Act is supposed to be the most influential of Acts because unlike other Acts, this is one which is implemented by the people. Thus, this act is a true representation of the democracy. But in the current context of the country, is it really able to represent the different factions and bring out the much-needed transparency? In order to answer this question, I talked to a few RTI Activists who have worked prominently in this field over the years.
Some issues with the RTI Act:
Though RTI has been able to achieve several landmarks, it is still far from its objectives. Some of the issues that are still unresolved include:
1. The issue related to vacancies at different levels of the government
2. Lack of transparency on matters of national importance
3. Issue of accountability of Public Officers
4. Headless Central Information Commission.
5. Lack of public awareness on using the Act
The headless central authority
In my conversation with Mr. Venkatesh Nayak, the Program Coordinator at Access to Information, I was told that nearly 55 lakh RTIs are filed in India every year. Yet, there has not been an appointment made at the central level for the CIC head. For the forth time in a row, was the CIC left headless. This only undermines the power of RTI. The same story gets repeated every year in several states, some of which include Bihar, Goa, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Tripura, and Uttar Pradesh. The promise of minimum government cannot mean that the important bodies are left headless or directionless.
Lack of accountability and vacancies
Additionally, in my conversation with Miss Pankti Jog, the Executive Secretary for Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel, I was told that there is a huge issue of accountability of public officers under the RTI Act. A lot of RTIs that are filed do not even get responded to. There also is the issue of delays which is not just attributed to the lack of accountability, but also to the fact that there are vacancies in the space which are not getting filled.
Lack of awareness among different parts of the country
MAPG has tried taking RTI to the nooks and corners of the country through several initiatives. Initially, they began with the helpline number where anyone could call up to get their RTI filed or enquire about any aspect related to the Act. In the process, they have helped several groups of people across the country raise their voice. One such instance is that of the Narmada dam authorities releasing water into the little Rann of Kutch without notice. The overflowing water would destroy the salt panes and soil properties and would leave the locals in a dire situation. MAPG, under the leadership of Mr. Harinesh Pandya used the RTI Act to formulate proper policies for the same and end this issue once and for all. Apart from the helpline, they run a blog that is very active and updates people on the several important RTIs filed and the consequences of the same. Additionally, they run a program called RTI on wheels as shown in the image below to spread awareness about the act.
Threats to Activists
Mahendra Yadav Ji is a renowned activist from Bihar who has worked on the rights of poor with regards to the Kosi Floods apart from spreading awareness on the RTI. I got a chance to connect with him and in the process learnt how hard the lives of RTI activists becomes with threats and warnings coming from several ends. We still do not have a proper whistleblower policy in place and we lag behind when it comes to protecting those who raise voice against the regime. Mahendra Ji informed me that he has already been attacked once and as a result had to be on bed rest for several weeks. More than that, some of his friends have even been murdered after they tried unfolding the information of some internal projects of the government. While Mahendra ji has the guts to go on and the passion to continue what he had been doing – not everyone can take that leap of faith. The current system discourages the common man from unfolding important pieces of truth.
The way around to resolving these issues
With the research that I did on these activists and organizations active in the space, I was able to figure out that some of the issues are already being addressed, even if at a local level. However, I was told that there is a lot that is to be done and quite clearly. As mentioned earlier, RTI is an Act that gets implemented by the people and therefore we can’t be dependent on the government to resolve the primary issues. It is up to us to push the government for the same. In the process I got a chance to talk to one prominent government official on some of the major issues pointed out by the activists
What an RTI Commissioner has to say on the RTI
Mr. Yashovardhan Azad is a man with several badges and accolades associated to his name. He is an Ex IPS. He has been the Special Director, Intelligence Bureau, and Secretary, Security, GOI. Why is he important to this entire discussion is because he is the Central Information Commissioner and an important stakeholder in the discussion on the RTI. I got a chance to talk to him on some of the issues raised by organizations and activists. On the accountability and response front, he was supportive of how the government functions and helped us point out the fact that with so many applications filed, some of them are bound to take more time. He acknowledged the fact that vacancies are an issue at this point but the government has been pushing hard to fill them. Though he was pro government in many of his statements, he did acknowledge that some of the aspects like the PM Cares fund could have also been covered under the ambit of RTI. Nevertheless, the government has tried spreading awareness on the RTI and this is one reason why today so many RTIs are filed. No doubt, the activists have had a huge role to play in it and will always be significant contributors.
Role of education institutes and the youth
Any conversation that I had with any of the activist, my final questions was always on the lines of what more could be done by people like us – students. Every time I was given a positive response on the how much a student and an institution could do. Some of these solutions suggested were:
1. Integrating technology with how information is retrieved and filed to make the process seamless
2. Pushing everyone at the undergrad level to file atleast one RTI during their education on something they feel is important
3. Mobilizing the locals in the area the students are based out of – be it the college location or their hometown due to the covid scenario
4. The Education institutes could tie up with the government’s Digital India Initiative and come up with a single database for all public information.
Some other suggestions to reform RTI and its implementation
These are some reforms suggested by the likes of Mr. Venkatesh Nayak and Ms. Pankti Jog. Additionally, from my experience of talking to people who have filed RTIs previously and those who never have, I have collated down a few important points below that are worth considering:
1. Make the understanding on the act and the process of filing a part of the secondary level education
2. Create a common forum of all NGOs and activists working in the domain and organize annual or semi-annual conference and meets to bring together problems and ideas across the country
3. Reduce burden on RTI officials by introducing fast courts for resolving issues. Also, to improve accountability, link KPIs of promotion and performance to the number of issues resolved
4. Have an independent RTI official body that discusses on bringing government initiatives under the ambit of RTI. This body should have member from the opposition party too. Minutes of all the internal meetings & statistics about RTIs must be made available to everyone via online portals.
5. Have a proper whistleblower Policy in place and ensure the protection of the activists. Create an online monitoring platform to keep track of the activists and any request raised by them for additional protection
*2nd year MBA student at IIM Ahmedabad