|By Cyril Vas, Bangalore [ Published Date: May 19, 2006 ]|
Gopal had moved into Bangalore five years ago. With his savings for many years he was able to buy a small plot. Two years ago he decided to build his new house. Besides many other legal formalities, he also applied for electricity connection. The officer in charge shamelessly demanded a bribe for the new connection. Gopal is a sincere citizen, living an upright life. He did not want to get his work done by paying a bribe and fuelling corruption. He went again and again to the department to know the status of his application. Typical of a government office, he was made to go from pillar to post even for a satisfactory answer regarding the status of his application. Disgusted at such negligence and corruption, he went home and took a sheet of paper and wrote an application. Quoting the then existing Karnataka Right to Information Act (KRIA) 2000, he asked for an explanation of the reasons for delay. To his great surprise his house was provided electric connection within two days!
Believe it or not, the Right to Information Act is one of the most powerful tools in the hands of citizens today across the globe. National and international governments are forced to deliver goods within the stipulated time. What is more important, they are required to furnish whatever information the public demand under the Act.
- What is a Right to Information?
- Who are eligible to request and obtain information?
- What types of information can be asked?
- Who is responsible to provide citizens with the necessary information?
- What is the time limit to furnish the requested information?
- Are there any penalties for erring officials?
- What type of information is the government required to provide?
- What information can be concealed from the citizens?
- What can the citizens do if the requested information is not provided?
- What is the role of civil society in making the Act more effective?
These are some of the important questions that need to be answered. In the following pages, let's make an effort to understand the law and its implementation. We will also briefly see its history with special reference to India. Finally we will see how civil society can work towards making the law and its implementation effective. All this will split the article into many parts.
Knowledge versus Ignorance
"Freedom of Information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone for all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated" -- United Nations General Assembly, 1946
The recognition by the United Nations stems from people's strong belief in and yearning for knowledge and information. The UN recognizes this need as a fundamental right of every citizen. Some countries with a democratic set up have recognized this basic need and enacted laws to safeguard it. However, countries with autocratic rule have repeatedly suppressed people's demand for information. Even in countries with democratic governance, the law is accepted in principle but when it is promulgated, the official tendency to hide vital information from people has continued unabated. Citizens have been forced to remain ignorant. Ignorance is both a misery and a danger and forceful ignorance in whatever form it exists must be condemned.
Ignorance or lack of information can cause heavy damage to life and property. Take for example the plight of people living in low-lying areas near the dams. If the release of water is not communicated to people well in advance, people get trapped with surrounding water that rushes to their houses. This in fact happened in the late 70s when the authorities of Linganamakki dam built across the Sharavathi river opened all the eleven gates without informing people living in low lying areas. What happened? Water gushed forth and rose like mighty waves, entering houses, destroying property, sweeping away cattle and even human beings. Information-deprived people lost their precious property. It was their right to be informed. But who bothered to inform? Of course the Right to Information Act was not existing at that time, but common sense - to say nothing of government concern for people- could have prevailed and saved lives and property.
The argument in favour of the people's right to know was succinctly put forth by James Madison, one of America's constitutional fathers: "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge brings."
The Need for Right to Information
Realizing that the greater the access of citizens to information, the greater the responsiveness of government to community needs, there is both an urgent and important need to make the citizens aware of this right. Given the low levels of literacy and the absence of effective communication tools and processes in India, it is not going to be an easy task. The right itself remains unknown for the vast majority of people. They continue to remain in the dark not only with regard to information regarding or affecting them, but also about the Act itself that empowers them with their rights. This can acquire serious proportions in the years to come if remedial steps are not taken now. Hence, the task of voluntary organizations to spread awareness regarding the Act and mobilize civil society groups and the people to use the right and seek vital information affecting their lives.
Interestingly, in India, the movement for the right to information has been as vibrant in the hearts of marginalized people as it is in the pages of academic journals and in the media. It is to be remembered that in India food, security, shelter, environment, employment and other survival needs are inextricably linked to the right to information.
We can never satisfactorily answer the above question. For a thousand reasons we need information. To summarise all, information is needed for good governance, for citizens' active participation in governance and full satisfaction with service delivery, for peace and justice and all round growth and development of people.
- A meaningful and effective democracy is possible only when a well-informed public can participate more effectively in the process of governance.
- Government is of the people. As such, the 3 P's, i.e. Parliament, Press and Public must be able to properly follow and scrutinise the actions of government. Official Secrecy is a major impediment to this accountability;
- Decisions governing people's lives are normally taken by politicians and bureaucrats without taking people into confidence. In a democracy it looks ridiculous that people are not involved in decision-making process.
- There must be transparency in all government dealings. Only where there is transparency there can also be accountability. How can citizens hold the state to account if they are deprived of proper information?
- Dissemination of vital information to the citizenry must be governed by sound principles. Information flows must be smooth to make governments more effective and help towards the more flexible development of policy.
- Far from fears of the government to be weakened by information sharing, information to citizens will enhance public cooperation with and participation in the government.
- A well-informed civil society can become responsible in democracy and contribute to good governance proactively.
The Right to Information: Touchstone for Democracy and Development
"The great democratizing power of information has given us all the chance to effect change and alleviate poverty in ways we cannot even imagine today. Our taskˇK is to make that change real for those in need, wherever they may be. With information on our side, with knowledge a potential for all, the path to poverty can be reversed." - Kofi Annan, Secretary General, United Nations
The Government of India enacted the Freedom of Information Act in 2002. This clearly marks a significant shift for Indian democracy, which is still in the grips of colonial Official Secrecy Act 1923. To cut the long story -of India's struggle to place before its citizens a suitable legislation on right to information- short, let me just state here that the Central Government enacted the Right to Information Act on May 15, 2005.
(Not to burden the interested readers to read too many pages at a time, the second part of the article will follow in the next week).