By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, July 27, 2019: RTI activists have to become proactive for yet another round of struggle to stave off any dilution of the spirit of the RTI Act, which the NDA government headed by Narendra Modi in his second term had done.

Information is power, but powerful politicians and bureaucrats more often than not try to put information out of reach for citizens. When citizens can access key facts and data from governments, the power-that-be find it more difficult to hide abuses of power and other illegal activities. The right to information is vital for preventing corruption.

Transparency is a critical element of good governance and a vibrant democracy. And yet the NDA government headed by Narendra Modi in his second tenure appears hell-bent to further subvert the Right to Information [RTI] regime by pushing an amendment to the RTI Act, 2005 that threatens to dilute the powers and functioning of Information Commissions.

The RTI Act, which took birth after years of struggle by common people, is regarded as one of the key and successful laws of independent India. It has given citizens the confidence and the right to elicit information about the activities of government authorities. Roughly about 60 lakh applications are being filed every year. It is used by citizens as well as the media.

The law is seen as having acted as a deterrent for netas and sarakari babus against taking arbitrary decisions. The RTA Act quickly struck root in a country hammered by the colonial legacy of secretive government. The Supreme Court also has held the right to information as being integral to the right to free expression under Article 19(1) (a); weakening the transparency law would negate that guarantee.

However, with the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha passing The Right To Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, amid protests by the Opposition parties and RTI activists, who point out that the move aimed at curtailing the independence of the Information Commissions, stage is set for a protracted battle for restoration of their independence.

The NDA government rejected the criticism saying that these were ‘routine’ amendments aimed at streamlining the functioning of information commissions and the Opposition was ‘misleading’ the people.

Jurists, human right activists, experts have made it clear that the amendments clearly expose the Modi government’s design as it seeks control over the tenure, salary and allowances of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at the Centre, and the State Chief Information Commissioners.

The government has a clear design to remote control the chief information commissioner and information commissioners with arbitrary removal or extension and curtailment or increase in salary depending upon their suitability for the ruling dispensation.

What is shocking is the way the amendment was moved the Parliament without public consultation. It is not that for the first time the central government is trying to undermine the powerful RTI Act. In 2006 and 2009, there were abortive attempts by the government to amend the RTI Act.

The RTI Act came to the fore nearly four decades of struggle at the grass root level. It was deeply rooted in the concerns for survival and the justice of marginalized and most disadvantaged rural people, which emerged as an important milestone for the upholding and strengthening of democracy.

In post independent India, there were sporadic demands for transparency in government, especially around specific events or issues. Some disasters like train or plane accidents invariably inspired demands from the public and MLA, MPs to make public the findings of enquiry committee’s which were inevitably set up.

Pic – Youtube

In fact, the humiliating war with China, in 1962 ended the euphoria of the freedom movement and independence. People started questioning government action and inaction like never before and suddenly there were more persistent and strident demands for information and justification. However, it took another ten years for the Supreme Court of India to take cognizance of public demand for access to information and rule that the right    to information was a fundamental (human) right.

Only in 1975 the Supreme Court, in State of UP vs Raj Narain, ruled that: “In a government of responsibility like ours where the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct there can be but a few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearings.”

Subsequently, in 1982 the Supreme Court of India, hearing a matter relating to the transfer of judges, held that the right to information was a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution. However, despite all this, there was little effort by the government to institutionalize the RTI and to set up a legal regime which could facilitate its exercise by the common citizen.

It was only in the mid-1990s, with the coming together of various people’s movements, that there was concerted and sustained pressure towards such institutionalization. It was only then that the state began to respond and work towards an appropriate legislation.

Even then it took more than a decade to pass The Freedom Of Information Act 2002 after the Supreme court gave an ultimatum to the government in this regard in a case. Consequently, the government enacted the Freedom of Information Act, 2002.

The Freedom of Information Act, as passed by Parliament in 2002, had the provision that it would come into effect from the date notified. Interestingly, despite being passed by both houses of Parliament and having received presidential assent, this act was never notified and therefore never became effective. It took another three years for both the houses of the Parliament to pass the amended Right to Information Bill. It got Presidential assent on 15 June 2005, and became fully operational from 13 October 2005.

According to the Common Wealth Human Rights initiative, 68 activists have been outright murdered. Now once again RTI activists have become pro-active for yet another round of struggle to stave off any dilution of the spirit of the RTI Act which is now being tried by the Modi government.

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