Sunday, January 13, 2008

Right to Information Act: A Primer

On October 13, 2005, the Right to Information (RTI) act came into full effect in India. In the two years since its implementation, the act is undoubtedly helping to bring a measure of accountability to the hopelessly inefficient and irresponsible Indian bureaucracy and bring to light the corruption and mismanagement of public resources by the government agencies at all levels. The main reason behind writing this post is to educate myself about the act and its implications. This is an ongoing learning exercise and I will keep adding information to the post. Tons of information about the act, its provisions, history is available on the WWW. My effort is primarily to collect scattered pieces, summarize and put it in perspective.

Contents:Brief History of the RTI campaign: India is a democracy. The government is supposed to be "of the people, for the people and by the people". The people then should have the right to access information about the functioning of the government. This "right to information" had been recognized by the Indian Supreme Court as a fundamental right by noting in a 1975 judgement[1] that "[the people] ... are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing". However without the RTI act, there was no mechanism through which the people could meaningfully exercise this right. Access to information was governed by laws based the archaic Official Secrets Act of 1923 passed during the British Raj. The demand for an RTI act started coming largely from activists and citizen's groups involved in rural development activities. The implementation of public schemes in India is riddled with huge amount of corruption. However the people affected by this corruption had no means through which they could get information regarding how public resources are utilized. Even in day-to-day governance people have to face indomitable wall of bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption to achieve simple things like getting a passport, an electricity connection or a ration card. In most cases an expectation of a bribe is behind the delays, dodges and disinformation regarding progress of applications. The passing of the RTI act gave a simple but powerful channel to get information and use it expose corruption and improve governance.

The campaign for the right to access information was initiated by an organization, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS), in Rajasthan since 1990. This campaign arose from their efforts to access government records while investigating wrongdoings in wages paid to laborers working on publicly funded schemes and malpractices in the implementation of Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) through which essential food grains are available to people at subsidized rates. An article by Rob Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz [2] summarizes MKSS's role and motivation as follows:
...This led to greater awareness of other malpractices which local workers had observed first-hand, but had no method of documenting. These included inflated estimates for public-works projects, the use of poor-quality materials, and over-billing by suppliers. To combat these forms of fraud, it became clear that access was required not only to balance sheets, but also to supporting documentation which could be cross-checked by workers organised through the MKSS – for instance, employment registers and bills submitted for the purchase of materials.
MKSS invented a novel way of enforcing accountability through "Jan Sunwais" (Public Hearings) where records of wage payments and detailed accounts of public works were read out in public in front of the concerned citizens. After a prolonged campaign and lot of resistance from bureaucracy initial success came in form of order from government of Rajasthan in 1997 to allow photocopying of records related to development work conducted under public schemes. By 1996 NGOs and groups in other parts of India involved facing similar issues had come together and formed the umbrella organization - National Campaign For People's Right To Information (NCPRI), and started a nationwide campaign to pass the RTI act. Some of these organizations are Samarthan in Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, Parivartan in Delhi, Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jana Andolan (Peoples Campaign against Corruption) led by Anna Hazare in Maharashtra. On the state level RTI acts came into effect in 9 states starting with Tamil Nadu and Goa in 1997 to Jammu and Kashmir in 2004. In the meanwhile the freedom of information act was passed in the parliament and became a law in 2002. This act was severly criticized to be extremely dilute and for having no effective power due to numerous exemptions to the disclosure of information. The right to information bill was tabled in the parliament in December 2004. The culmination of the struggle by NCPRI and associated organizations was the passing of the national RTI act of 2005.

Provisions of the act: I will no go into the detailed scope and provisions of the act in this section. The Wikipedia article and many other sources explain this in great detail. I will on the other hand try to summarize what I think is important in the scope and provisions of the act. First of all the act is quite broad in its definition of "information" that can be sought by citizens. For example, citizens can demand "samples of materials of work" under the RTI act. The act covers all constitutional authorities including the executive, legislature and judiciary. It also applies to any institution or authority created by an act of the parliament and any private institution that receives substantial financing from the government. This makes the act very broad in its scope as well. Certain types of information, such as information pertaining to national security etc. is of course deemed outside the scope of the act and may not be available

How to file applications?: Here too I will avoid going into details of the process as it is explained clearly in the Wikipedia article. If interested you can also watch one of the videos below by Arvind Kejriwal to understand the process clearly. The thing I liked the most about the process of filing RTI applications is its simplicity. Anyone who has tried to obtain a passport or a driving license etc. in India knows that simple things require a lot of tedious paperwork. In comparison an RTI application can be filed on a single piece of paper, it can be handwritten or in some places can be filed electronically. Another salient feature is that the citizens do not have to explain why they are requesting the information. The act also has a clear time-line defined in which a response can be expected and redress sought. The simplicity of the procedure is important to bring the act within the reach of the illiterate and poor citizens.

External Links:

Government Websites
[1]Right to Information act.

NGOs and Organizations
[1] Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS)

[2] National Campaign For People's Right To Information (NCPRI), India

[3] Parivartan

[4] Samarthan

[5] Association for India's Development (AID)

[1] MKSS video(41 min.) about the RTI campaign [A shorter version (16 min.) of the video]

[2] Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan talks at AID - Bay Area chapter. [Talk: part1, part2; Q&A: part1, part2, part3]

[3] A video (59 min.) introduction to Maharashtra RTI act (in Marathi). Includes a talk by Anna Hazare of the Brashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan.

[4] Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan talks at Asha - Univ. of Florida chapter. [Talk, Q&A].

[5] Talk by Arvind Kejriwal - Provisions of the Act (12 min.), How to draft an RTI application? (3 min.)

[6] Common Man's Empowerment (45 min.) - Introduction to Maharashtra RTI act (In English).

[1] Wikipedia article about Right to Information act.

[2] India Together: RTI section. (There are many interesting articles on India Together about the campaign as well as the implementation of RTI)

[3] Writings by Aruna Roy and others on MKSS website.

[1] Supreme Court of India Judgement on 01/24/1975 [link]

[2] Accounts and Accountability: Theoretical Implications of the Right-to-Information Movement in India, Rob Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz, Third World Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3 (1999), pp. 603-622. [link available through MKSS website]