There is a necessity for a whistleblowers act to protect RTI users as the system has “strategised to stall” free flow of information to disempower and stop such activists, says Aruna Roy, who spearheaded the Right to Information Act movement. She also feels that there is still a need to see the RTI as a larger democratic and people’s constitutional tool to make power truthful and accountable and put pressure on the political establishment, which it cannot ignore or distort.
According to Roy, the RTI has brought in an architecture where “we are enabled to change from a culture of secrecy to one of transparency”. “However, the system ever conscious and jealous of its power, has strategised to stall the free flow of information, to disempower and stall RTI users. More than 70 of them have died, for exposing corruption and preserving democratic rights,” the former IAS officer who resigned from the service to work with peasants and workers in rural Rajasthan told PTI.
Roy, who in 1990 co-founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), alleges that the State has permitted criminals to get away.
“If there had been no RTI, many of these tenacious RTI users would have been declared terrorists, anti-state, or Maoists. But since its inception many thousands of questioners of corruption and mis-governance have been able to use the RTI to not only establish the need for transparency, but also to get justice,” she says.
She suggests that a whistleblowers act is the need of the hour to protect the RTI users like human rights defenders. On the huge pendency of RTI applications, Roy says that the commissions are now staffed mainly by former bureaucrats “who rarely” impose penalties. “The users have to activate the campaign to lobby with the government to ensure staffing and time bound outcomes. There are many information commissions including the Central Information Commission with vacancies for the commissioner’s posts,” she says.
“Some commissions have not evolved a norm for numbers of cases to be disposed by each commissioner. As a result, pendency has mounted in some states so that it will take years to get a hearing. Obviously, over time the whole act will be undermined,” she adds.
Roy has come with a book “The RTI Story: Power to the People”, published by Roli and written with the MKSS collective, which, she says, is an attempt to see history of the RTI as it evolved with people and in their own words. “This is a people’s narrative, and records their voices. They are democracy’s most ardent advocates and important contributors. When history records, it is from the perspective of the powerful and the ruling elite,” she says.
Roy asserts that the RTI has belied all expectations saying it is an acronym familiar to crores of Indians and 60-80 lakh Indians use it every year. The biggest contribution of RTI, according to her, is understanding the mechanics of governance, and de-mystifying its process.
“The logical conclusion is that the excuses of the system for non performance are no longer tenable and the information accessed, points most to corruption and misuse of power. But once information is disclosed the big bottleneck is accountability,” she says. That is why, she says “we need a basket of measures including a Lokpal Act, to help us fight grand corruption and a grievance redress law to enforce accountability and ensure that people’s concerns and complaints are addressed”. On the drawbacks of the RTI Act, Roy says there are no time limits fixed on the second appellate authority – the information commissions.
“The selection committee for the commissioners is not independent from the government and therefore the party in power plays a dominant role. The first appellate authority has no accountability and therefore has most often become an extension of the public information officer,” she says. Also pro-active disclosure under section 4 has no penalty, and the implementation is tardy, she adds.
RTI can only help bring transparency and for a more effective democracy measures of accountability and participation are needed, she feels.
On changes required in the RTI Act, Roy says amendments are a double-edged sword. “Peoples’ control over parliament and political parties is now at its weakest. Progressive amendments can happen only when all, or many of its 60 to 80 lakh users are involved in the process,” she suggests.