The RTI Amendment Bill, passed by the Parliament on July 25 this year empowers the Central government to determine the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of services of all Information Commissioners, which is likely to affect the autonomy of the commission. RTI activists say this would definitely render the commissioners as mere puppets of the government.
Speaking about the amendments to dilute RTI, Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) told National Herald : “The amendments have surely been a big blow. But we are not losing heart. We started out when there was no law. Way back in the late 80s and 90s, the demand for access to government records was a way to challenge the misuse of power by the powerful and influential in the administration. We then realised that asking for information was an effective method to establish the right to question, the right to equality and accountability. Since then, RTI has been a tool by which the poor person realises his fundamental right to demand transparency from a system known for its refusal to share information. We started at village panchayat level, then state level law and then it became a national law in 2005, providing a practical solution for ensuring people’s right to information. So even if the amendments have been put in place, we will keep asserting our birthright by putting people’s pressure on the government.”
According to activists, at least 60 lakh RTIs are filed by various users every year. If these RTI users’ base can be expanded, urged to ask sharper and pin-pointed questions, help one another, multiply the efforts, it will then turn into a collective effort. The RTI movement has always found its ways and means to sustain itself. “The RTI user is lonely while challenging the government or seeking information. We would now try to do it collectively,”says Dey.
Under the ‘Use RTI to Save RTI’ campaign, hundreds of RTIs would be filed on the first of every month across the country synchronising it with social campaigns and peoples’ groups seeking information on key issues of public interest.
In Rajasthan, on August 1, several RTIs were filed in several districts. In Dungarpur, at least 14 RTIs were filed under the forest rights act, and regarding health, panchayat raj, workings in the zilla parishad, zilla collectorate departments.
In Rajsamand, RTIs were filed for information on lists of beneficiaries pertaining to Prime Minister’s Housing Scheme and the amount of loan they have received till now, along with others.
In other states like Odisha, Maharashtra, Kerala, hundreds of other RTI applications were filed relating to issues like social security, defence procurement like Rafael aircrafts, land acquisitions, MNERGA, Unnao rape case, functioning of the Lokpal, hospitals, teacher recruitments and others.
And on the 1st of the next month, the compliance and information received from the RTIs filed in the previous month would be analysed, shared with the media and public. And for those RTIs, whose information has been withheld or delayed, a constant pressure to get the information out, would be maintained,
On non-compliance of the RTIs filed, Dey says : “We will ask and find out why there has been a non-compliance and expose the corruption and abuse of power. The non-compliance would be a clearer indicator of why an RTI application should be filed in the first place.”
On the dilution of power of Information Commissioners, activists say the amendments have been already made, so their campaign would now focus on and strengthen various steps before the appeals reach the Information Commission. They assert that laws are supposed to be followed in the case of RTI too. If there is good governance, there would be very few appeals.
But Dey is sceptical too. “It is a big challenge to keep the RTI movement alive and kicking in the face of such authoritarian rule, when there is a huge difference in what the government is saying and what it is actually doing. But RTI has always faced challenges. Adversity has always acted as a trigger to make the movement stronger and sustainable. The attempt to amend the RTI has been a constant threat as RTIs have always proven to address a wide-ranging spectrum of grievances and corruption cases from a ration shop in a small village to the Adarsh, Vyapam and 2G scams. In face of these recent amendments, which have weakened this sunshine law, we demand that the Information Commissioner office be given a constitutional body status instead of its statutory body status now. This will ensure the independent functioning of the commissions,” he added.
Activists say even under a government with brute majority, RTI will remain a watchful and vigilant tool and will strive to make more people join the quest towards the ‘right to know’ and the ‘right to question.’