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  The Right to Information Act is headed right

Over the last 24 hours, millions of virtual fuse wires have been snaking across India, connecting to mini-bombs under chairs and tables in government offices that have gone progressively arrogant since Independence. In these government cells are pockets of information, concealing which, bureaucrats and politicians derive and share power and pelf. The Right to Information Law that came into force on October 12, 2005, hands over to individual citizens, triggers to detonate action that will unlock information hidden away in files and lockers.

Information is the ultimate ammunition in democracies. Were citizens empowered with it, they will take governance back from oppressors. Social workers in education, health care, legal aid and other basic rights and services are admired by civil society and gleefully encouraged by the government. They deliver today what governments must. In a perfect society, where transparency reigns and corruption ceases, social workers would be redundant.

Of course we all know that perfection is elusive but we must tend towards it. The RTI Law points India in the right direction. It is far from perfect, yes. Activists have already begun to battle for the next foot-hold. But after some more tweaking, the Law will truly bite and India will win.

This optimism is caused by the path travelled so far. Until we adopted our Constitution in 1950, there had been no scope for individual freedom at any time in India’s history. Arbitrary rule has been the norm. It is our Constitution’s Article 19 that guarantees us the right to freedom of speech and expression. It is on this Article that India’s celebrated freedom of the press based. While most people intuitively connect and see the need for media to be free, they do not quite presume the same right for themselves. The media must know to inform. And because it is a principle of democracy that people are their own masters, we too must ‘know’ to take care of our selves.

The first stirrings of people to claim the right to know began in Rajasthan in the early nineties. Aruna Roy, an ex-IAS officer brought her experience as a government insider to bear in favour of villagers wanting to know where their unpaid wages went. Partnering with Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh, she formed the Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan [MKSS]. From those little reported days, grew a nation wide movement demanding the right to know. In Maharashtra Anna Hazare applied the pressure.

Finally in 2002, politicians were dragged kicking, to pass a token law, the Freedom of Information Act. It was still-born, because the Act was never notified. Not that it mattered, because it was a toothless law, any way: it did not provide for any punishment for an officer who failed to provide the information sought. But the demand to know did not die down. Nine states had already yielded to public pressure and passed their own state-level laws, most weak but some [as in Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka], quite effective.

Street level activists like Shailesh Gandhi in Maharashtra and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi delivered telling blows on administrations. In 1996, The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information [NCPRI] was formed. It has since gained in voice and strength. Due largely to its effort politicians were shamed into passing a law that has some bite.

The law that came into force yesterday, provides for a constitutionally mandated Chief Information Officer in the mould of election and vigilance commissioners. Dr Wajahat Habibullah, a widely admired IAS officer of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre, is the first CIO. States are to appoint their own independent officers. Each government department is to have its information officer to whom a citizen may apply and seek information. It has to be provided in 30 days. If it is not, there is a well defined path of appeal. There are also penalties leviable for non provision of the information sought - up to Rs.250 a day. [The entire Act may be downloaded from this link.]

NCPRI has already protested about two shortcomings. One, why are file notings being excluded from the purview of information open to the public? And two, why are only bureaucrats being appointed as information officers? Obviously, the campaign will continue. What must cheer us is that the establishment has been successfully challenged and engaged for the first time in India’s history. Whatever the outcome of the early rounds, the final winner will be the people. It will be a long series of matches- we are at but the second.

The need of the hour is to broad base the campaign and rally behind civil society leaders. Small local groups must provide support and guidance to simple people seeking information. There are evolved techniques in framing queries. Shailesh Gandhi cites the case of a man who was asked a Rs.20,000 bribe for a ration card in Maharashtra. Instead, he paid a Rs.10 fee and put in a simple query: what was the position of the ration card application queue in terms of application dates, and what was the rate at which cards were being issued? He got his card in a hurry.

The man you are seeking information from is a past master of obfuscation. He thrives on your long-winded application to make good his escape. You must learn to trap him with a simple, direct, unambiguous query. It is not an easy task to match a slippery mind. Such skills have to be developed and shared widely. That is the only way to work this law and make it stick. By itself it will not deliver good governance at your door step.

For a survey of the right to know movement in India, click here.

As cited