Shailesh Gandhi


India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act has caught the imagination of people in this country, while being appreciated across the world. A great change has come in India this decade in the power equation between the sovereign citizens of the country and those in power. This change is just beginning and if we can sustain and strengthen it, our defective elective democracy could metamorphose, within the next one or two decades, into a country where the promise of democracy is actualised.


However there are also signs of regressive forces which could stymie these promises. Everyone in power generally feels transparency is good for others, whereas they should be left to work effectively.


Former PM Manmohan Singh, harried by the uncovering of various scams through RTI, said at the Central Information Commission’s convention in October 2012: “There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose.” Current PM Narendra Modi has taken preemptive action by not appointing a chief information commissioner at all, which renders RTI dysfunctional.


Bureaucracy is also hardening its stand. It has realised that in most cases the commissioners are not really committed to transparency. This, coupled with the long wait at the commissions and their reluctance in imposing penalties is slowly making it difficult to get sensitive information which could aid citizens to expose structural shortcomings or corruption.


A greater danger comes from the selection of information commissioners through political patronage. Most have no predilection for transparency or work. Their orders are often biased against transparency and in many places a huge backlog is being built up as a consequence of their inability to cope. Consequently a law which seeks to ensure giving information to citizens in 30 days on pain of penalty gets stuck for over a year at the commissions. Commissioners are slowly working less and less. In the Central Information Commission six commissioners had disposed of 22,351 cases in 2011, whereas in 2014 seven commissioners disposed of only 16,006 cases! Civil society and media are rightly critical of the government for not appointing the balance four commissioners, but at the current rate of disposal 11 commissioners will not dispose of over 25,000 cases a year.


It is evident that at this languorous pace of working RTI will slowly become like the Consumer Act, mainly in existence for the commissioners. Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy. We have a very useful tool in RTI to make our democracy meaningful and effective. It will work and grow if we struggle to ensure its health.


We need to put pressure on various institutions so that they don’t constrict our right to information, ensure a transparent process of selection for commissioners and adequate disposal of cases at the commissions. If we are lazy this right will also putrefy.


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