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Oct 13, 2005
The Right to Information Act is headed right

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.

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