Right to Information is the Secret to Good Governance
Hindustan Times, Jaipur Live, September 07, 2009
By Pradeep S Mehta
While researching a proposed international agreement on investment in 1996, I asked the Swedish delegate for their government’s submissions in highly secret negotiations being conducted by the rich nations’ club: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. He gladly handed over copies of the Swedish submissions, as the information culture in Sweden allowed him to share with me such information, often times treated as highly confidential by most governments, including India, in the world.
Sweden was the first country in the world to pass an access to information law in 1776. Since then there has been a steady increase in public demand at the global level for legislation that stresses upon transparency, openness and accountability on the part of the government, thereby ensuring that official proceedings are not kept secret from the very people for whom it is made and good governance is promoted. In response to such justified demands by citizens, by 2006 around 68 nations had responded by enacting suitable laws.
Such legislation is variously termed as ‘freedom of information’, ‘right to information’, ‘information access’ legislation or even ‘sunshine laws’ and ‘open records’. By 2006, almost 37 countries had approved of the legislation in Europe, 14 countries in the Americas, and 12 in Asia. India adopted the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005.
In India, free flow of information has always been constrained by factors such as the Official Secrets Act, 1923 which is a legacy of the Colonial era.
The RTI Act of 2005 was preceded by the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, which was especially important since it superseded the Official Secrets Act of 1923. Yet, the law suffered from a number of disadvantages: no specification of punishment for officials withholding required information; retention of wide discretionary powers by government officials to withhold information including file noting as well as Cabinet papers.
Due to these flaws in the mentioned Act, it could never be implemented effectively. However, it did act as a stepping stone to a law with more teeth: the RTI Act of 2005 also superseded the Official Secrets Act. The RTI allows the public to inspect works, documents, and records; take notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; take certified samples of material; and obtain information in the form of printouts, diskettes, floppies, tapes, and video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts. The required information has to be submitted by the relevant public authority within 30 days.
In an improvement over the previous Act, the RTI lists out penalties for unresponsive behaviour on the apart of the public authorities. Another important feature of this Bill is the provision for Information Commissions – independent high-level bodies at both the Central and State levels, which are entrusted with the task of facilitating information as appellate bodies.
Expectedly, there have been many controversies surrounding the initial stages of the RTI.