The Right to Information Act (RTI) is an act of the Parliament of India “to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens”. This act applies to all the States and Union territories except the State of Jammu and Kashmir which has its own RTI Act implemented in 2009.
The provisions of this act allow a citizen to request information from a ‘public authority’ which may be a governmental body or ‘instrumentality of state’. The concerned authority is mandated to reply promptly or within a period of 30 days depending on the nature of the request and the nature of the information queried. It is evident that to respond to this act, every public authority has to computerize their records for wider distribution and to proactively publish certain categories of information. The RTI Act also specifies that the citizen can request any information, inspect documents and records and obtain information in the form of printouts, discs and other electronic media. The citizen making the request is not obliged to make any disclosure about him or her except for his/her name and contact details.
The RTI Act seems to be the boon of a really democratic state but let’s take a look at the reality. Getting an information law on the books is easy and it is in fact only the beginning. The real challenge lies in ascertaining that public information really reaches the citizens. So, it comes as no surprise that after India passed its RTI Act in 2005, the Government suffered a crushing backlog in processing the two million plus requests that came in within the first three years. Even with an apparently efficient network of information commissioners in place to facilitate applications and with new approaches on the part of the government to keep the cases moving, the response to the RTI Act was coming to a grinding halt.
It would be simply naivety on the part of an ordinary citizen to ask or obtain any information from the self- absorbed officials in the private sector, the ministers or officials in the judiciary on their working through the Right to Information. Because they honestly believe that all information pertaining to the government belongs solely to the government and should be held closely by its guardians. They can’t imagine how citizens are entitled to it. Old habits die hard. While RTI itself has made some commendable improvements in the way the government sectors should function, it has also kept provisions in such offices to cleverly evade pointed queries with the help of the old laws with enough loopholes in it. The more one inquires the more the queries are turned around discreetly with the only option to leave it to the higher authority to take up the matter.
In order to implement the RTI act in a just manner, a vast number of organizations that should have been covered under the definition of “public authority” need to come forward proactively to be covered by the act. Even the government has taken no action so far to ensure that all bodies that are covered by the above-mentioned definition of “public authority” undertake actions as listed in the Act. Secondly, the fact that the actual disclosure of information by the public authorities is marked by inconsistency and unevenness also needs to be corrected. It is indeed necessary that important and meaningful information to be placed in public domain making use of all the mediums and through the website. We can only hope that with advent of the e-governance system, the public authorities of both the Central and the State government will follow the provisions of the Act in letter and spirit.