Is RTI losing its shine or being misused?

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The world’s largest democracy is governed by a set of fundamental rights enjoyed by its citizens. However, post independence India has added on the list of the rights with the Right to Information (RTI) act which brings in transparency and accountability upon the government and national machinery being one among them. In a series of judgments from 1975, the Supreme Court acknowledged that Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution guaranteed Right to Free Speech, Right to Publish and Right to Information as Fundamental Rights. However, while the first two rights were recognised and their scope was increased over the years, the Right to Information was languishing in the absence of a proper method to give access to information to all citizens. However, the RTI Act 2005 codified this right very well. The law in its preamble asserted that democracy requires transparency in functioning, and it was necessary to contain corruption and hold governments accountable.

Having said this, there has been a resistance of those in power towards RTI. While everyone pays lip service to transparency, it has been noticed that most people want others to be transparent but are reluctant to actually practice it themselves. The corrupt detest it for obvious reasons and most of those who are honest take offence at being asked to share their decision making and actions because of arrogance. Since most of the power centres of governance are covered by RTI, the resistance has transformed into a narrative painting RTI in dark colours. One of the first unfortunate, significant signals was the Supreme Court’s observation in 2011 in CBSE Vs. Aditya Bandopadhyay which said, “(RTI) Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration or to destroy the peace, tranquillity, and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.” This observation has been quoted many times with glee by officials, who are now seeing justification in not observing the law.

With this, the governments and PIOs have begun to see that if they do not comply with the provisions of the law they would not have to face any serious consequences. In the worst case, the Commission may rule on disclosure. Though the Act does not permit any appeals beyond the Commission these decisions are often challenged in courts by masquerading as writs. In one such blatant case, the PM Cares Fund has refused to give information on its functioning despite it being a public authority as per the RTI Act since it is controlled by the government through the PM and three ministers. However, citizens are also building their strength to get the law implemented. They have realised the power which the Act gives them. Even during Covid-19 times many different groups are discussing and promoting RTI through virtual platforms. A PIL has also been filed in the Bombay High Court to ensure all hearings by virtual platforms and also to get directions to the Information Commissions to dispose of all cases before them in a time-bound manner. These may lead to the evolution of a common set of issues and strengthening the citizen’s fundamental right further.

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