Social Activist Aruna Roy was one of the four (Nikhil Dey, and the husband-wife duo Shankar Singh and Anshi) who began to work on the citizen’s ‘right to know’ way back in the 1990s. This came about as a result of them living and working amidst the local citizens in Devdungri, Rajasthan, since 1987 to understand their problems. It became the home of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). It is from here that impassioned and collective battles to aid the locals with issues of minimum wages began. There was lack of transparency and that led to more questions and grew into the right to seek records and proof.
Eventually, in 2005 the RTI Act was passed. And now 14 years later, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government is attempting to kill the Act and stifle the people’s movement. On July 23, 2019, amid opposition cries, the Lok Sabha passed the Right To Information (Amendment) Bill. The Bill is pending with the Rajya Sabha. These amendments, which include setting the terms and salaries of the Information Commissioners, will render the RTI Act powerless.
National Herald caught up with Aruna Roy and her colleagues Nachiket Udupa and Mohammad Nawazuddin. Excerpts from the interview
What is the new RTI Amendment Bill all about?
The RTI Amendment Bill, as passed recently by the Lok Sabha, puts the Central Government in control of the tenure, salaries and allowances of the Information Commission, both at the Centre and the states.These are currently defined by the RTI Act, which states that Information Commissioners will be treated at par with Election Commissioners. The Amendment, essentially, is to make the Information Commissions accountable to the government and is restricting the Commission’s autonomy. If passed, it will corrode the independence of the Information Commissions and weaken the RTI Act.
The law, in its original form, has been a breakthrough in creating mechanisms and platforms for the practice of continual public vigilance that are fundamental to democratic citizenship. The mostly unequal struggle to extract information from vested interests in government needed an institutional and legal mechanism; which would not only be independent but also function with a transparency mandate. It had to be empowered to over-ride the traditional structures of secrecy and exclusive control. An independent Information Commission,has the right to penalise errant officials, and has been a cornerstone of India’s governance,and the celebrated transparency and accountability regimen.
This law, with all its provisions, was passed unanimously, it was a consensus of all in Parliament , and therefore allparties, after citizen movements and political parties, together seemed to have reached a level of understanding. The amendments are now being pushed through without any citizen consultation, bypassing examination by standing committee.Previously, proposed amendments were put out on the website for public deliberation. But the present regime seems determined and desperate to pass these amendments to the law without any consultation. The notion of pre legislative consultation has been totally by passed.
How is the BJP justifying these amendments?
The government, ironically and laughably, claims that these amendments will strengthen the Act. These justifications are real life examples of the kind of political double speak that George Orwell presciently warned us about.
What are the dangers of these Amendments that the BJP is proposing?
The Commission which is vested by law with status, independence and authority, will now function like a department of the Central government,and be subject to the same hierarchy and demand for obeisance. The decision of the government to usurp the powers to set the terms and conditions of service and salaries of an independent body must be understood as an obvious attempt to weaken the independence and authority granted by the law.
Why is the BJP attempting to bring about these changes? What do they have to hide?
Information is power. Hence, governments have an inherent tendency to hide information in order to retain power. The RTI Act fundamentally helped the balance of power between the state and the citizen by empowering the citizen to obtain information from the state. It helped people in reclaiming the sovereignty from governments who ironically derive their power to exercise sovereignty through the vote. It helps people hold to account those in power. These are things that are healthy for democracy but are inconvenient to the ruling dispensation.
Those currently in power have autocratic tendencies.The current philosophy of governance is to centralise decision making and,thereby, power. A questioning populace is a thorn in the flesh of such governments. Questioning itself becomes the primary right and mode to dismantle power. For those who want to centralise decision making, the RTI is a formidable democratic right to be dismantled.
How has the RTI helped people?
The RTI has been a constant challenge to the misuse of power. It has also been a threat to arbitrariness, privilege, and corrupt governance. It has been a lifeline for many of the 40 to 60 lakh ordinary annual users, many of them for survival. More than 80 RTI users have been murdered because their courage and determination using the RTI was a challenge to unaccountable power.
The RTI has helped with the cross-verification of the affidavits of powerful electoral candidates with official documents and certain Information Commissioners having ruled in favour of disclosure. It has been used brilliantly and persistently to ask a millions of questions, each year, across the spectrum — from the village ration shop, pensions, the Reserve Bank of India, the Finance Ministry, on demonetisation, non-performing assets, the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, electoral bonds, unemployment figures, the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), Election Commissioners, and the (non)-appointment of the Information Commissioners themselves. The information related to decision-making at the highest level hasin most cases eventually been accessed because of the independence and high status of the Information Commission.
What is the way forward?
The RTI community is worried. The undermining of the Act has bared the insecurities of the current dispensation and its constant dislike of being questioned or held accountable. It is easy to talk of zero corruption, but when mechanisms that help to build it are attacked , the intentis exposed. The RTI has unshackled millions of users who will continue to use this democratic right creatively and to dismantle exclusive power. The RTI has been and will be used to withstand attacks on itself and strengthen the movement for transparency and accountability in India. Eventually, the government will realise that while it might be able to amend a law, but Indians across the board have been empowered by the RTI and will not allow these amendments so easily.