On 16th anniversary of RTI Act, activist Anjali Bhardwaj explains how a good law was stifled

Anjali Bhardwaj, who was awarded the newly constituted International Anti-Corruption Champions Award by the US Administration in February this year, recalls how the law was weakened

On 16th anniversary of RTI Act, activist Anjali Bhardwaj explains how a good law was stifled

Sanjukta Basu

The Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014 on an anti-corruption plank. But in the last seven years the BJP government has successfully emasculated the LOKPAL and the RTI Act. Anjali Bhardwaj, who was awarded the newly constituted International Anti-Corruption Champions Award by the US Administration in February this year, recalls how the law was weakened. The founder of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, an anti-corruption crusader and RTI activist spoke to Sanjukta Basu. Excerpts from the interview:

How has the Right to Information Act (RTI Act), which became effective on October 12, 2005,empowered Indians or changed India?

The RTI Act has been one of the most empowering legislations in free India. Every year 60 lac RTI applications are filed not just by journalists or activists or the so called ‘educated elite’ but by people at the margins. Even by those living below the poverty line because they are the ones most dependent on delivery of government services.

The RTI movement preceded the passing of the law by over a decade. The foundation of the law was laid down by various Supreme Court judgments where the Court held that right to information is part of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19. Because how can you form opinions without information and how can you express yourself truly? Before the 2005 central law, there were already state laws in 9 states, including Maharashtra, Delhi, Rajasthan, Goa and Tamil Nadu. People were using those laws and had realized the power of information.

I was working with a group called Parivartan in Delhi those days along with Arvind Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and others. We used to set up camps outside govt offices and spread awareness among people against paying bribe. But how would people deny bribe if they cannot get basic services from government? A system was needed to empower people so that they could meaningfully say no to bribes. The Central law provided that robust system. It is one of the best RTI legislations in the world.

Let me share just one example of how it has empowered people. In 2003 I parted ways with Parivartan and co-founded Satark Nagrik Sangathan to pick up the issue of public distribution system. I remember a visit to a slum settlement in Delhi to tell them that there is a fantastic new lawwhich they should use. One of the women stood up and said, “We can’t get ration, what would we do with information?”

It made us realize that ordinary people don’t want information for the sake of it unless it is connected to their basic needs. We tried to then pursue the ration issue. First a set of RTI applications were filed to seek the records of ration shops in the constituency. Once we obtained the ‘stock registers’ and the ‘sale registers’, they revealed that the ration was being supplied but the sales were a work of fiction. Fake names, same fingerprints and so on.

We organized a public hearing where more than 500 families testified in front of government officials and media, tallying the records on the stock register, sale register and their ration cards. The blatant corruption was exposed and quick actions followed. Several ration shops’ licences were cancelled, disciplinary actions were taken against several government officials and most importantly, people started getting their ration. People realized the power of information, and its relation with their other rights.

Soon, we were flooded with requests from people seeking information on other rights, like pension, water supply, dispensaries not giving medicines, local colony road not constructed etc. People at the grassroots started filing applications on their own because they realized how empowering it was.

Why are a large number of RTI applications –said to be in lakhs—pending despite the time stipulated for replying to them? Many applications also seem to be dismissed as ‘frivolous and vexatious’…

I don’t know what is the basis of this narrative. We have done an analysis of more than 20,000 randomly selected applications across India filed with different departments and the profiles of the applicants.We found that barely 1% of applications could be qualifiedas ‘frivolous and vexatious’.

The rest are all filed by ordinary people asking for their basic rights.An old lady seeking pension after her husband died over 20 years ago, an anganwadi worker saying, “They said I have got the job but where is my offer letter?”

People are filing RTI applications because there is no grievance redressal mechanism. In fact, we have been demanding a separate grievance redressal legislation which we call the RTI2.0.

Are you alleging that the Modi regime has weakened RTI? Did the UPA Govt have a better record?

Information is power, and no government wants to part away with power. Let’s accept that. While the UPA government must be applauded for passing the law, there were several issues in its implementation even then. BJP came to power on the anti-corruption plank,so we expected that they will strengthen the most important tool to fight corruption, the RTI law. But what have they done?

First, they stopped appointing information commissioners. The Information Commissions (ICs) have great powers as an appellate body for citizens to approach if the government refuses to provide information.

Since May 2014, not a single Information Commissioner was appointed unless activists approached Courts. As a result, appeals remain pending. An information delayed is information denied. But the current government is frustrating the rights and tiring out people by not appointing the ICs.

The current government is also denying information and disrupting the system by not maintaining any data. My right to information is only effective when the government keeps official records. On the floor of Parliament, Modi govt said there is no data on how many people died of Oxygen shortage or how many migrant workers died. The household consumer expenditure survey has been discontinued. The records of the last survey have not been made public on excuses that they are faulty. Same with unemployment record.

The Government has also brought in amendments despite massive objections and without any consultation to compromise the transparency watchdog and its independence, the Information Commission.

According to the original law the tenure of the ICs was statutorily fixed, and their salaries and other terms of services were at par with the highest offices, that is the Election Commissioners which are linked to the Supreme Court Judges.

In 2019 the Modi government amended the Act giving the central government the power to fix the tenure, salaries and other terms of services of the ICs. These will no longer be as per the statues but as per Rules framed by Centre. It means there is a sword hanging on the ICs that if they don’t perform as per their wishes there will be adverse consequences.

The new Rules provides only a 3-year tenure which may differ from commissioner to commissioner and not uniform. Even their pension would be decided on a case-to-case basis by Centre. It means Government could pick and choose and give longer tenure and better pension to those whom they think would toe the line.

Finally, the government is curtailing information by creating instruments which they declare do not fall under RTI, such as Electoral Bonds and PMCARES Fund.

Rich companies give funds to political parties not out of charity but because they want something in return when the government comes to power. So, citizens should know who is providing the money and for whom the government is working. But the electoral bonds were brought in without any consultation and against the advice of the RBI Governor Uriji Patel and the Election Commission. They have ensured that only the ruling party gets to know who the funds are coming from. Records show that 98% of the electoral bonds are going to the ruling party.

In case of the PMCARE Fund, they say it is not a public fund despite the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers being its trustee. We filed an RTI with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs seeking details of how PMCARE was set up and how it could receive CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds from the public sector. Under Companies Act CSR money can only be donated to an entity set up by the Central government, and under RTI law any entity set up by government is a public entity and therefore covered under RTI.

When this contradiction was pointed out and people started asking questions, the government retrospectively amended the Companies Act to enable PMCARES to receive CSR funds. The big question that is hanging is what is the big secret about PMCARES?

But ruling party supporters keep saying that citizens must trust the Government and the Prime Minister…

The cornerstone of a democracy is that citizens have a right to question. You can have a philosopher king or a benevolent and caring dictator but those are not democracies. So far as trust is concerned, it is a false dichotomy that if you question, it means you mistrust. If anything, providing timely information and transparency builds trust in the government. Suspicion arises when they try to deny information.

Could you cite an example of information denied under RTI Act on frivolous grounds?

We still have not got information about the degree of Prime Minister Modi. He claims to have graduated from Delhi University, but a copy of the certificate was denied on the ground that it was a privacy violation. There is a CIC order directing the university to provide the information but it is still not being shared.

Satark Nagrik Sangathan was not the original applicant but we intervened when the information was denied because the outcome of this case has larger implications. University convocationsare open events; every year names of graduates are announced. How is it then a privacy issue? The case is still pending for more than 5 years.

A recent media report claimed that as many as 20 RTI petitioners have been killed in Bihar since 2010. Across India, in the last 16 years, what kind of threats or violence have been faced by RTI activists?

By our estimate, in the last 16 years, around 80 people have been killed for simply asking questions that could expose corruption. That too not big-ticket corruption but simple things like ration, housing schemes, land grabbing etc.

There have been strong demands for a Whistle Blowers Protection Act. The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information of which I am a co-convener held a 20-day long campaign and the law was finally passed in Feb 2014 by the UPA government. But the Modi government has still not framed the Rules to implement the law.

Meanwhile people are being killed even after seeking police protection. Government is morally responsible for these deaths. These are just deaths, there are thousands who are attacked and harassed who do not make the numbers.

Has the journey as an activist been tough for you?

Anybody who questions today is targeted and I am no exception. But I would not like to give details about me. Those who are at the grassroots face far more severe levels of threat compared to me, given my social background and class.

How did it feel to be awarded the International Anti-Corruption Champion Award from the Joe Biden administration? Does the Indian government reward anti-corruption and RTI activists?

Any movement is a collective effort;so no one individual can take credit. I feel it is a great honour and recognition bestowed upon everyone involved in the RTI movement. I do not know of any such award by the Indian government.

Instead, the present government is creating a culture where there should be no questioning or activism. Anybody raising questions is considered an enemy. Just recently a senior Union Cabinet Minister (Kiren Rijuju) said, when asked about the deaths of RTI activists, “There is a problem in our country, a culture of questioning has come up.”

You can imagine where the government is headed with this mindset.

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