Two numbers make clear how much of a paradigm-shift the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, has been for transparency and accountability in India. One, an estimated 5-8 million RTI applications are filed every year. Two, more than 45 RTI activists have been killed—not counting the many attacked—indicating just how much of an impact it is having in curbing abuse of power. In the 10 years that the Act has been in force, ordinary citizens have used it to question various acts of commission and omission of the government. While Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports such as on spectrum exposed the A Raja scandal, and eventually led to the cancellation of licenses, RTI played a big role in exposing the Adarsh scam. RTI’s largest contribution, of course, has been the role it has played in institutionalising social audits as an implicit part of governance—indeed, the original work done by Aruna Roy, one of the social activists who helped push RTI, was in getting muster rolls of various government programmes to check the actual beneficiaries against these rolls. In a column in The Indian Express, Roy and RTI campaigner Nikhil Dey write of how the RTI has been the “weapon of the weak”, how key features of the popular campaign that built the momentum for the enactment of the transparency law have set India’s accountability landscape in a ground-up manner. For instance, social audits are based on the jan sunwai (public hearing) that started in the mid-1990s.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of the government for RTI has waned over a period of time. Political parties have resisted all efforts to be brought under RTI, as have the top rungs of the judiciary—indeed, even the UPA, which brought about the RTI, tried to overturn the central information commissioner’s ruling that political parties are “public authorities”. While appointments to several posts in various information commissions have been delayed, the lack of a law to protect whistleblowers is unconscionable since, without this protection, many will be discouraged from putting out information. It is true that RTI has been abused in the past—in the initial years, the Act was often used by bureaucrats seeking information on transfers and postings—but the Act’s powers are gradually getting whittled with, for instance, arms of the government putting out less information on a suo motu basis. The Madras High Court had ruled—though it later recalled this ruling—that since the word ‘right’ is not defined in RTI, those seeking information under the law would need to state the object and purpose for which the information is sought. If providing the purpose is made mandatory, it is a thin line dividing this from the authorities deeming the purpose as ‘undesirable’.