“The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.”
— Charles Bukowski

Introduced in 2005, the Right to Information, or RTI, is an act of the Indian Parliament that codifies the rules and procedures regarding citizens’ right to information in the public domain. This Act gives Indian citizens the right to access information about any public authority or institution, including NGOs substantially funded by the government – which is then required to “reply expeditiously” or within thirty days. In cases involving a petitioner’s life and liberty, the information must be provided within 48 hours. This 23-page document replaces the earlier Freedom of Information Act, 2002, and provides the inalienable right to information for all Indian citizens. It overrides the colonial Official Secrets Act, 1923, and has checks and balances laid out by the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2011 (later renamed Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2014).

There are two important aspects to its existence. First, while the Freedom of Information Act did consider information about the public bodies to be public, it did not acknowledge the citizens’ right to that information. It provided for appeals only within the concerned government bodies, and as such, barred the jurisdiction of courts or other subsequent appeals to/by another body, independent or otherwise. Back when anti-government reports were not considered “international conspiracies”, one recommending amendments to this Act was submitted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (report here), and hence a new act, incorporating most of these recommendations was introduced as the RTI Act. At the forefront of the enactment was the MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, which is now at the forefront of the ongoing Farmers’ Protest – maybe our Supreme Leader should not dismiss them as illiterate farmers).

The second aspect of its existence is rooted in the very definition of “Information” itself. The Act, in C.1,S.2(f) states that “information” means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force”. Hence it aims to provide clarity of information, contain corruption and promote accountability. Further, every public authority is needed to “maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and the form which facilitates the right to information under this Act” [C.2,S.4(1)(a)] – which aims to keep the authorities on their toes. We need to understand these two aspects because both these aspects are under attack from the current Government of India – let us see how.

Creating exemptions to the RTI Act –
RTI’s regarding Demonetisation were rejected by the RBI, citing Intellectual Property Laws (Firstpost). RTI’s regarding construction under the Gomti Riverfront Development Project were rejected by the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department after more than eight months of a wait (BallotBox India). When the CIC (Central Information Commissioner) directed the RBI to provide a list of wilful loan defaulters, the Supreme Court had to intervene (took four years, by the way). Most notably, in recent times, The Supreme Leader’s Office has refused to take documents related to the PM-CARES Fund public (obviously).

Attacks on RTI Activists –
Many RTI activists have been harassed and even murdered for seeking information. Assaults are pretty regular. They face social ostracism. Many threats, attacks, and murders go unreported by the media. Media reports of over 300 attacks on or harassment of citizens and at least 51 murders and five suicides can be linked to information sought under The Right to Information Act. A comprehensive list of all media reports and attacks on RTI Activists can be found here – complied by the National Campaign for People’s Right to InformationCommonwealth Human Rights Initiative maintains another list – known as the Hall of Shame.

Pending RTI’s – 
Fifteen years after coming into force, over 220,000 RTI’s are now pending at various levels of Central and State Information Commissions. The PIB Press Release by the GoI dated August 1, 2018, numbered it at 23,978 at the CIC. The backlog of so many cases is now completely defeating the entire purpose of the Act and making it nearly impossible to receive any valuable data from holding anyone accountable for anything. (courtesy Times of IndiaThe WireThe Hindu)

“Defending the Information” –
Applications can be rejected if the disclosure of information “affects the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of India or would lead to incitement of an offence” [C.2,S.8(1)(a)]; “is forbidden to be published by any court, tribunal or if disclosure may constitute contempt of court” [C.2,S.8(1)(b)]; or “includes information such as trade secrets, commercial confidence, intellectual property” [C.2,S.8(1)(d)], and in a few similar cases. However, this has broadened its horizons to include almost anything the Supreme Leader deems fit – to protect His image. 

“Many RTIs are rejected because the bureaucratic requirements (including the technocratic language used) of filing are too onerous and legalistic for ordinary citizens” (Reference 6). “Sixty percent of the RTI appeals made to Information Commissioners in Delhi are rejected for a variety of reasons, including that appeals are not typed or not written in English, or lack an index of the papers attached or a list of date” (Reference 7). “This bureaucratic barrier, worse for those without access to higher education or information, makes the right to information inaccessible. Many citizens have to seek out NGOs, RTI activists, or lawyers, to file their RTIs” (Reference 8).

Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 – (see the complete text here)
The legal nail in the coffin of the RTI Act came from the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The changes made to The Act are tabulated in the following figure (courtesy PRSIndia.org)

RTI Act vs RTI Amendment Bill; Courtesy PRSIndia.org

The idea is clear, making the Central and State CIC’s and IC’s puppets of the Central Government, and using them as “post-retirement reward positions” for the Supreme Leader’s sympathisers (much like a Rajya Sabha Seat).

The RTI is a landmark act in the history of Indian Politics. It empowers people to ask questions, gives them tools to fight against corruption, and gives them the right to hold the government and other organisations accountable. By attacking this Act, the current establishment is making us stop asking for information, deciding for ourselves, or advocating our choice before the corridors of power. 
The Supreme Leader is strangling the voice of the nation, and we are letting him.

“Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.”
— Atifete Jahjaga

References –

  1. RTI Act – Government of India, Ministry of Law and Justice
  2. Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 – EGazette
  3. Sarbjit Roy vs Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission – CIC reaffirms that privatised public utility companies fall within the purview of RTI.
  4. Ashwanee K. Singh, 2020 (Complete Judgement January 5 2021, 611 pages) – Supreme Court stabilises that the Right to Information is fundamental.
  5. Article by The Print – here
  6. TJ, Shalin (May 1 2017). “When RTI is Difficult?” – OnlineRTI Blog.
  7. Sharma, A. (2013), State Transparency after the Neoliberal Turn: The Politics, Limits, and Paradoxes of India’s Right to Information Law. PoLAR, 36: 308-325. https://doi.org/10.1111/plar.12031
  8. Aniket Aga, Chitrangada Choudhury; A Dappled Sun: Bureaucratic Encounters in the Working of the Right to Information Act in India. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East December 1 2018; 38 (3): 540–556. https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201x-7208856
  9. Sinha, Roshni (July 19 2019). “Explainer: The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019”. PRS Legislative Research.

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