Saturday, October 15, 2011

RIGHT TO INFORMATION- A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT?


RIGHT TO INFORMATION- A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT?
Naveen Tewari
Published in: The
Hindustan Times, 13 October 2011
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THE FIRST SHOCK CAME WHEN THE U.P. GOVERNMENT APPOINTED THE STATE CHIEF
INFORMATION COMMISSIONER AND THE INFORMATION COMMISSIONERS.

ALARM BELLS STARTED RINGING IN OUR MINDS.

THE APPOINTMENTS RAISED SERIOUS QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW SERIOUSLY THE
GOVERNMENT OF UTTAR PRADESH HAD TAKEN THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE ACT IN LETTER AND SPIRIT

The Right to Information Act was passed in India in the year 2005. But the founding fathers of our constitution had already enshrined it in the constitution as a fundamental right under article 19(1-a). The right was not exercised by the people due to their general ignorance of law and also because it was not developed into an implementable form with a delivery mechanism and system.

Slowly over the years the pressure for transparency in governance and accountability in administration increased to a very high level.  The enactment of the Right to Information Act eased some direct stress on the government by giving an outlet to people to seek reasons for their problems.

This Act gave us sky high hopes, by fooling us into believing, that our elected representatives, our lawmakers were serious and sincere about bringing about positive changes in the way they govern us.
However, the future it projected in terms of transparency was too good to be true. But tormented as one was like the rest of the country by the indignities that were heaped on us by the corrupt and corrupting government, one decidedto go with the flow of wide eyedoptimism the Act’s passage generated.

Having foundthis ultimate panacea of all our ailments we enthusiastically  embarked upon a community effort of spreading awareness about it. Training camps were organized on how to write an RTI application, how to file the first appeal,  how to file a complaint or second appeal. We went from office to office to find out who were the Public Information Officers and whether appellate authorities were appointed or not. Even a preliminary  general survey of different offices filled us first with despair because we found that hardly any of the offices had taken it seriously. Either the PIOs were not appointed or they themselves denied the knowledge of being the PIO of the particular department. Our despair slowly turned to hope when we saw that our enquiries stirred the sleeping system and soon enough the PIOs were to be found in their respective offices. In the beginning there was initial resistance in the departments to receiving and processing the applications. But a sustained effort by a large number of applicants and pressure from some organized groups  like ours started wearing the resistance down. It helped that the group  had some very senior retired bureaucrats working as  volunteers. The media also gave priority coverage to any news concerning RTI and both the successes and failures were magnified to draw attention of the people and the government.  

The first shock came when the U.P. Government appointed the State Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners. Alarm bells started ringing in our minds. The appointments raised serious questions about how seriously the government of Uttar Pradesh had taken the implementation of the Act in letter and spirit. The government of the day treated this law with the same casual contempt as it had treated other institutions and instruments of governance. The Commission was doomed to become a defunct court like the consumer courts, the Bar Council and the Press Council etc. The post of commissioners became choices for rewarding friendly journalists, sycophants and loyal bureaucrats. Although the writer of this column raised the alarm during the meetings of our group unfortunately no one saw the writing on the wall. The damage was done. The Commission was crippled before it could take even baby steps in the direction of enforcing the Right to Information Act.

In this bleak scenario some stray incidents took place preventing the fluttering flame of hope from sniffing out. As a result of group efforts and also due to some extent his ill luck, we managed to get the SCIC suspended from office for misconduct. The Supreme Court put its seal on his fate. Barring that lone exception, we could not prevent the government from making further appointments in total violation of the norms and procedure and in clear contradiction of the provisions of the RTI Act.

The public by and large is in the same ambivalent state of despair and hope. Some front rung leaders of the movement realize their folly and admit in private the failure of the experiment. While all our hopes and aspirations from the RTI Act have not been fulfilled it has provided succor and courage  to many. There is already a sizeable number of cases where the sustained use of RTI has resulted in the corrupt being shamed or punished, some opening up of government systems and information even if forced by the courts, of creating a fear in the officialdom.

NAVEEN TEWARI
(The author is the State Convener of U.P. Right to Information Campaign, National
Alliance of People’s Movements - NAPM. Email: nct.lko@gmail.com)

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Published in: The Hindustan Times,
13 October 2011
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