India got Independence in 1947 and proclaimed itself a Republic in 1950, with a great Constitution. However, in practice, a brown elite replaced the white masters and Swaraj did not come. Mahatma Gandhi had said, “Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity to resist authority when abused.” A few did acquire the authority and retained it, but the capacity to resist misuse of authority eluded the average Citizen of India. Right To Information (RTI) now empowers him to do that.
The Right To Information is derived from our fundamental right of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. If we do not have information on how our Government and Public Institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. This has been clearly stated by various Supreme Court judgments, since 1975. We accept that the freedom of the press is an essential element for a democracy to function. It is worthwhile to understand the underlying assumption in this well entrenched belief. Why is the freedom of the media considered as one of the essential features for a democracy? Democracy revolves around the basic idea of Citizens being at the center of governance and rule of the people. We need to define the importance of the concept of freedom of the press from this fundamental premise. It is obvious that the main reason for a free press is to ensure that Citizens are informed. This being one of the main reasons for the primacy given to the freedom of the press, it clearly flows from this, that the Citizens Right To Know is paramount. Since the Government is run on behalf of the people, they are the rightful owners who have a right to be informed directly. Justice Mathew ruled in the Raj Narain case, “In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but 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 bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security.”
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in the rural areas of Rajasthan first brought RTI on the agenda of the Nation. Nine States had enacted the Right To Information Acts across India. On 11 and 12 May, 2005, the two houses of Parliament passed the Right To Information Act as Act 22 of 2005. This become operational from 12 October, 2005 - significantly Vijayadashmi.
Right To Information (RTI) existed since the day the Constitution of India was framed. The present Act only gives procedures to operationalise this right.
The Importance of RTI
- At the price of Rs.10, it provides the facility for Citizens to get information on the Government's actions and decisions. If you send your application by registered post or courier, the extra cost will be about 10 to 25 Rupees. The cost of getting the information of about five pages would be Rs. 10/. Even if you add the postage cost of getting the information the total will be about 70 rupees.
- The law mandates that the information has to be given within 30 days.
- If a few thousand Citizens spend about Rs. 70 per month and about an hour in their own house they can file a new RTI application and get information about matters, which concern them.
- The power of getting accountability, reducing corruption, impacting policy decisions and ensuring better governance is now with us. We missed our opportunity in 1950, but have another chance now.
- YOU individually can make a big contribution to getting the Nation we want.
- A small effort from our own house, can bring Swaraj.
What is information? Section 2 (f) of the Act defines it thus:
2 (f) "information" means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force;
Effectively, this means it has to exist. The word opinions and advices means those which are on record. This does not mean that the PIO will have to give his personal opinion, clarification or interpretation which is not on record.
Right to information is defined under Section 2(j) as :
"right to information" means the right to information accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes the right to -
i. inspection of work, documents, records;
ii. taking notes, extracts, or certified copies of documents or records.
iii. taking certified samples of material;
iv. obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies. tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device;
Information can be demanded from all Public authorities, ie. all Govt. bodies and organizations substantially financed by Government including NGOs and aided schools and Colleges.
The Right To Information Act is a codification of this important right of Citizens. The right existed since the time India became a republic, but was difficult to enforce without going to Court. The Act stipulates the following:
- A time period (30 days) within which information must be provided.
- Method of giving the information.
- Ten exemptions of information- Section 8 (1),- which will not be given.
- Citizens can ask for information by getting photocopies of documents, permissions, policies and decisions.
- Inspection of files can also be done and samples can be asked for.
- All administrative offices of public authorities have to appoint ‘Public Information Officers (PIO)’ or ‘Assistant Public Information Officer’
- Citizens apply for information to the Public Information Officer of the concerned office.
- If information is not provided or wrongly refused, the Citizen can go in appeal to an Appellate Authority who would be an official in the same department, senior to the PIO. The Appellate authority has to give a decision in 30 days.
- If this too does not give a satisfactory result, one can appeal to the State or Central Information Commissioner, which is an independent Constitutional Authority, established under the Act.
- The Act provides for a penalty for delay on the PIO at a rate of Rs. 250 per day of delay, or for malafide denial of information, or giving false information. In case of information being delayed, no charges for information are to be paid.
Thus RTI provides for a time bound and defined process for Citizens to access information about all actions taken by Public authorities. The penal provisions on the PIO are the real teeth of the Act, which ensure that the PIO cannot treat Citizen’s demands for information in a cavalier manner.
Each State has the right to frame its rules in terms of fees, procedures and forms, which have to be in consonance with the Act. The rules can only specify the application fee, and a set format for applications or appeals. They can also specify the extra charges for providing the information. The rules cannot go beyond the Act and have to be in consonance with it.
Commonality between Maharashtra and Central Government rules:
- Application fee Rs.10 payable by cash or pay order. Maharashtra also allows payment by Court fee stamps. For Central Government bodies the 10 rupee application fee can be paid by an Indian Postal Order in the name of the Accounts officer of the public authority.
- Maharashtra has a format for application. The Central Government has no fixed format. Citizens can use the Maharashtra format for both.
- Charges for providing information in A4 size paper are Rs.2 per page.
- No need to get forms from anywhere. Your application can be typed or handwritten. When sending handwritten applications ensure that they are easily readable.
- Maharashtra restricts the words for seeking information to 150. The Central rules have a word limit of 500 words (excluding annexures and addresses of PIO and applicant).
A Few types of cases where this right can be used:
- You need information on some activity of the Government, or reasons on record for certain decisions.
- You know or suspect corruption or wrongdoing in some department or activity. The mere asking of information sometimes reduces illegal acts, since the wrongdoers feel restrained or threatened by exposure.
- When bribes are sought to give your ration card or water connection or an authority refuses to act on a complaint or FIR.
- You feel you could suggest improvements, if you have the information.
What do you need to do:
- Find out the address of office or department, which is responsible. You can address your application to the PIO, at that office. All offices are supposed to have a PIO or APIO. If the application goes to the wrong PIO, he has to forward it to the correct PIO within five days
- Information has to exist in the office in some form. Think of how to frame a question asking for information, which will serve the objective you are trying to attain.
a. If you wish to know of the policy for reserving or dereserving of land, ask for a copy of the rules governing it. If you wish to know why a sports ground is being converted into a commercial complex, ask for the copies of the correspondence including file notings on this.
b. If you suspect that your application for passport, incometax refund or ration card is being delayed ask for the action taken status of your application.
c. If you think a government college is giving admissions arbitrarily, ask for the list of students admitted with their marks.
d. Vinita Deshmukh inspected records and unearthed the fact that Dow was setting up manufacturing plant with dangerous chemicals near Pune. Dow had to withdraw.
Make the RTI application clearly defining the information you are seeking in Appendix A, sign it and take a photocopy for your record. Send it to the office from which you are seeking information. If you or your representative is delivering it personally, get an acknowledgement on the Xerox copy. You can also send it by speedpost. Some offices cause problems in accepting hand-delivered requisitions. In such cases speedpost is advisable. For Maharashtra Government bodies a Court Fee stamp of Rs.10 can be affixed on the form as payment of application fee. For Central Government Organisations, the most convenient method is to send a 10 rupee Indian Postal order –available at most Post offices. Make it payable to ‘Accounts Officer, (name of organization).
Information, which can be denied
There are some matters where information can be denied, which are given in Section 8, (1). Quoting these verbatim from the Act: