The cornerstone of a democracy is the existence of well informed and enlightened citizens. The right to information, therefore, originates from democracy itself. It refers to the people’s right to get information from the government and public authorities at all levels within a stipulated period barring a few exceptions. Sweden was the first country to give its citizens the freedom of information. In 1946, UNGA stressed on the fact that “Freedom of Information is a fundamental right and the benchmark for all the freedoms to which the UN is devoted. [i] In India, after enacting the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, there was a growing consensus among the citizens on the need for the Right to Information. The weaker and poorer section of society gets empowered. Around this time, the Supreme Court gave its ruling in the case of LK. Koolwal v. State of Rajasthan and Ors.[ii] It observed that freedom of speech and expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution has Right to Information implied in it since freedom of speech and expression cannot be exercised without information. Several NGOs raised their concern over the need for the Right to Information. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an NGO based in Rajasthan, has waged tireless struggle on citizens’ rights to demand information saying “the right to know is the right to live’.This movement led to the establishing the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. Finally, in 2005, the Right to Information was enacted in India.
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THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, 2005 : AN OVERVIEW-
India’s parliament gave the Right to Information Act assent on 15th June 2005, and it came into force on 12th October 2005. The act is aimed at promoting transparency and accountability within the government. It also creates an obligation on the authorities to provide credible information sought by the citizens. All the central, state, and local government bodies and the judiciary and the legislature are covered under the act. It also includes all other bodies owned, controlled or financed, by the government either directly or indirectly, and NGOs and other bodies substantially funded, directly or indirectly, by the government. The act also applies to private sectors as it aims to provide the citizens with all the information that the government can access using any other provision of law. Definition of ‘information’ as given under section 2(f) of this act means “any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advice, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form. Also, the information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.” Further, the Act has defined “Right to information” under Section 2(j), which provides various rights to access information under the control of any public authority through multiple modes such as inspection of documents and reports, copies of documents (both hard and soft copy) and certified samples of material.
RESPONSIBILITIES OF “PUBLIC AUTHORITY”-
According to Section 3 of the RTI Act 2005, all Indian citizens shall have the right to information. For this right to be guaranteed efficiently, public authorities need to fulfill specific responsibilities.
Public authorities in this Act refer to an institution or a body or an authority which is self-governed or constituted:
- By or under the constitution.
- By-laws made by Parliament
- By-laws made by the state legislature
- By a notification issued by an appropriate govt.
The responsibilities of such public authority are given under Section 4(1) of the act, which states that every Public Authority has to maintain all its records cataloged and indexed to ease the Right to Information. Under this Act it is the duty of the Public Authority to ensure that all records that can be computerized are reasonable and subject to the availability of resources, computerized and connected through a network all over the country on different systems to access such records. It has to disclose further information that is appropriate for disclosure under section 4(1) b.
REGULATION OF INSPECTION OF DOCUMENTS
The right to inspection is a vital element of the right to information. This right has been given under Section 2(j) of the RTI Act 2005. However, there is no rule regarding the subject which can regulate this right of inspection. A scrutiny of the relevant portions of the Act, i.e., sections 2(j), 6, and 7, indicates that it does not provide a time frame for inspection of the documents. However, section 7 of the Act talks about the time limit for supplying information to the person seeking such information. Under this section, information must necessarily be provided within 30 days of the receipt of the request. Such requests can also get rejected if it falls under the kind of information given in Section 8(1). Such information includes[iii]
- Information that can affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, and is of strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, or is in relation with foreign state or which can lead to incitement of an offense;
- Information that is expressly forbidden from publication by any court of law or information can lead to the court’s contempt.
- Information which can cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature;
- Information which includes commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that public interest warrants the disclosure of such information
- Information available to a person owing to his fiduciary relationship, unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest allows the disclosure of such information;
- Information received in confidence from the foreign government;
- Information, which would endanger the life or safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes;
- Information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offender
- Cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers.
Section 9 further states that information that can lead to copyright infringement, if disclosed, is liable to get rejected upon its request.
PROCEDURE FOR SUBMISSION OF AN RTI APPLICATION-
Section 6 set out the procedure for submission of RTI application before the Public Information Officer. Following are the requirements of an application filed under the RTI Act:
- The applicant should be a citizen of India.
- Particulars of information sought by the applicant should be provided in the application.
- The evidence of payment of application fee should be attached with the application.
- The applicant’s address should be made available for processing the request and sending the reply.[iv]
DIFFICULTIES IN THE EXECUTION OF THE RTI ACT-
One of the most striking hindrances to the smooth implementation of the RTI Act is the indifferent bureaucracy that thrives on the dubious ways it works. Further, Public Information Officers (PIO) designated in each state are not uniform, leading to a backlog of applications at the State Information Commission level. E.g., in Rajasthan, the number is around 35,000. In contrast, this number is 200000 in Kerala. [v] Another significant difficulty the Act faces is that it was made only to ‘comply’ with no implementation intention. No steps were taken to popularize it. The use of this Act is, therefore, left to the politicians to decide the future course of action. Low record-keeping culture and the pervasive bureaucracy is also a significant hindrance in the path of effective execution of this act.
Therefore, the Right to Information is a landmark enactment that is aimed at recognizing the rights of citizens to seek information from the public and private authorities. The act was legislated to mark a watershed in India’s democratic development. The right to information is an essential component of a healthy democracy because it provides citizens with the right to demand information about the activities and decisions to promote national interest. The Act, if appropriately implemented, can reduce corruption at all levels of bureaucracy. The State Governments and Public Authorities are still on its way to creating the most suitable infrastructure in their system to provide accurate and glitch-free information sought by the citizens. However, there is a need for spreading awareness regarding the provisions of the Act through various means like media, seminars, meetings, etc. The success of the movement majorly depends upon the level of awareness among the citizens. Proper dissemination and promotion of the various provisions of this Act are the keys to reducing the prevailing corruption and promoting transparency and accountability within the government’s multiple levels.
[i] S.L Goel, Right to information and good governance 35 (Deep and Deep, New Delhi,2007).
[ii] AIR 1988 Raj 2.
[iii] The Right to Information Act, 2005, s.8(1).
[iv]How to file a RTI application, available at: http://www.rtifoundationofindia.com/how-file-rti-application-2 (last visited on October 2, 2020).
[v] Fumiko Nagano, ‘Do Ordinary Indians Care about Their Right to Information ‘? available at: http://blogs.worldbank.org (last visited on October 2, 2020).
BY PRITHA LAHIRI | INSTITUTE OF LAW , NIRMA UNIVERSITY