The Department of Political Science organized a lecture by Dr. M.M. Ansari, former Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission (CIC), Government of India, on the topic, “Right to Information Act: Prospects and Challenges,” at the department’s seminar room on Wednesday, 10 Sept. 2014. [Link to Audio]
Dr. Ansari began his lecture by stating that he will mainly speak on four main components pertaining to the Right to Information (RTI) Act; namely: the genesis of RTI, its major objectives, salient features, and its impact on governance.
Genesis of RTI:
In his assessment, there are three major forces which has led to the RTI Act, he said. First, and the most important in his view is the “information revolution.” “In the last five to six decades we have seen a tremendous growth of knowledge in almost every discipline,” he said. And access to all of this information has become critical for everyone to make informed decisions. He cited examples of business men who need information about the market, farmers who need information on farming etc. Similarly, he said, citizens require information from the state on matters that concern them. For example, he said, students would like to see how their test papers have been graded; something they can now ask for, as a right.
Then the second most important force is the trend towards democratization of political systems all around the world, he said. The United Nations in its charter clearly states that all democratic countries will provide freedom of speech to its citizens. Incidentally, he said, the Indian constitution when drafted did not list the citizen’s Right to Know as a right. And since people did not have the right to know, people could not find out how their tax money was being spent, which led to corruption in the system.
This led some states, at least 9 states he said, to pass some kind of Right to Information legislation in state assemblies. The passing of such legislation had a reduction in corrupt practices in their states. Therefore, the central government also decided to pass a similar legislation in the parliament. It so happened, he said, in 2002 under the NDA government, the parliament passed the Right to Information Act. But the RTI Act was not notified or was not implemented till 2005 under the UPA government.
The third most important force behind RTI he said, was the move away from central planning of the economy to a more regional and localized planning, thus rendering the decision making process more participatory.
Objectives of RTI:
The first objective, he said, was setting up a regime for accessing information held by public authorities, which is defined as all governmental bodies, even private entities who have been funded or benefited from public resources.
The second objective, he said: “is to maintain the paramountcy of the democratic principles.”
So the two major objectives are, he reinstated: set up an RTI regime for free flow of information, the purpose being to ensure transparency, to seek accountability and thus have an impact on corruption.
RTI Framework and Salient Features:
While speaking on the RTI framework, Dr. Ansari said: “the [Indian] RTI Act is one of the most comprehensively drafted [Act].” He further went on to cite an international study that claimed India’s RTI Act to be the second best in the world.
To assesses the worthiness of the RTI Act, he said, there are three stakeholders or actors which have been identified in the RTI Act.
The most important actor is the citizen, the information seeker, he said. The citizen has the right to demand any information from any governmental body. And the term “information” has been defined as “any material in any form.” The information has to be in material form though, he said. This means, you cannot make queries in the form of why, whether, if etc. Information requested cannot be in the form of a question, he said. Therefore, information seeker also has the right to inspect or scrutinize the records in order to identify the material required. This is to ensure the information requested is not ambiguous in nature and broad in scope.
Then the second stakeholder is the information-provider, he said. The information-provider’s role is defined as an obligation, a duty which he has to fulfill. Their obligations are clearly identified in the Act. They are further obligated to publish as much information as possible even without anyone having to make a request for it. Their obligations are not limited to simply disclosing the information, he said. They have to even facilitate the information seeker in gaining access to the information. For example he said, information-provider is obligated to assist a physically handicapped person in accessing the information.
And if the information-provider does not fulfill his obligations, then he is personally penalized for not fulfilling his responsibility.
State’s Right to Deny Information:
The conditions under which a public authority has the right to deny information to a citizen, he said, are: any information that can affect the national economic interest or the integrity of the nation; any information which has been forbidden by the courts; any information received by foreign governments whose disclosure can affect the relations with the country; any information related to ongoing criminal investigation; and any information which relates to a third-party.
That said, the citizen also has the right to contest and challenge the government’s claim in situations where he might disagree with their assessment of the sensitivity of the information requested, he said. And this is where the third stakeholder comes into play, which is the Central Information Commission (CIC).
CIC acts as the adjudicator between the first and the second actor, and also as the enforcer of the RTI Act. It has the power to punish the information-provider who doesn’t meet his obligations, and also has the power to compensate the information-seeker in case denial of information has resulted in damages, he said.
Impact of RTI Act:
The first biggest impact the RTI has had, he said, is a greater degree of transparency in the system. A lot of information has come into the public domain because of it.
Second he said, is greater accountability in the system. And this has led to a great impact on the reduction of corruption in the system. All the scams and scandals we know about today are mostly as a result of RTI, he said.
In conclusion he said, what we need to do now is to work on “information literacy” — meaning, enhancing the skills to find information, to analyze the information, and then take informed decisions based on that information.
The talk was followed by a Q&A session.
Listen to the complete lecture by Dr. M.M. Ansari here:
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