Those following the status of India's Freedom of Information Act, 2002 are waiting with bated breath for sweeping amendments to be passed in the current session of the Parliament. The changes promise far greater transparency in government functioning, if implemented. But in the meantime, citizens in Maharashtra and Karnataka for instance, are not putting their crusades on hold.
The National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) has been in dialogue with the government as well as key political figures on passing the amendments in Parliament. NCPRI is a national level people's group comprising individuals and non-governmental organizations. It advocates and organizes for transparent functioning of institutions and agencies in India within or outside the government, and aims to mobilise popular support for peoples statutory right to information.
As our readers may know, the National Advisory Council (NAC), chaired by Sonia Gandhi sent 36 proposed amendments for the unnotified Freedom of Information Act this August. The main objective was a) to ensure maximum disclosure and minimum exemptions consistent with constitutional provisions, b) to introduce independent appeal mechanisms and penalties for failure to provide information as per the law and c) to ensure effective mechanisms for access to information and disclosure by authorities.
Members of the NCPRI, sensing apprehensions among the bureaucracy about some of the proposed amendments, decided to meet the Prime Minister and leaders of various political parties to lobby for the early notification of an amended RTI Act and against the dilution of the amendments. NCPRI has said that the PM assured the group that he would be happy to discuss the comments offered by the various Ministries before these were finalised.
NCPRI activists also met former prime minister V P Singh, Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M), and D Raja and A B Bardhan of the CPI to request them to extend their support to prevent dilution and delay of the amendments. On 5 December 2004, V.P. Singh, accompanied by Aruna Roy and Shekhar Singh of the NCPRI met the PM to discuss the status of the amendments to the Freedom of Information Act. The PM unequivocally assured that the proposed amendments would be introduced in the ongoing session of Parliament after being approved by the Cabinet.
The final shape of the proposed amendments is not yet known and the Act is still awaiting introduction in Parliament. Citizens cannot exclude the possibility of the amended act being referred to a Standing Committee. This will delay its passage and disappoint the public.
Even as policy negotiations take their course at the Centre, a few states are becoming hubs of constructive activity around regional RTI laws. Eight states already have RTI laws including Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
In Karnataka, the state's final appellate authority (the Karnataka Appellate Tribunal or KAT) for RTI recently heard the first ever RTI appeal on the Bangalore municipality's very delayed release of a document. Wilson Pais, the citizen applicant, asked the Tribunal to impose penalties (a fine as per the state's RTI law, the Karnataka Right to Information Act or KRIA) on the BMP officer who had ignored his request for a city planning document for several months. Pais complained that the first level of appeals in the BMP, the Special Commissioner had levied a penalty on the Deputy Commissioner, the errant officer.
Changing its long-held position that it could not entertain RTI appeals without written orders of first appellate officer (who have often refused to respond), the KAT revised its position and decided to entertain the matter. For Karnataka this was a major first step. But the KAT's Chairman (a judicial officer) stopped short and stated that state's RTI law does not clearly empower the KAT to impose a penalty on the errant officer. The case is pending.
In the meantime, representatives from diverse organisations gathered at an RTI users forum (KRIA 'Katte') this November at Bangalore. Participants had enlightening stories to narrate at the meeting about their experiences in using the state's law. In response to his application seeking details of the city's spill over public works and status of works for the current year, 74-year-old S.N.Subramanya said he had received a written request from the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP, Bangalore municipal corporation) seeking 60 days extension for obtaining the information sought. As the request seemed arbitrary, and he appealed.
Subramanya reported at the meeting that after filing his appeal, he got a call from the local corporator (elected city council member), who verbally harassed him and threatened to bring goons to his doorstep if he continued with his enquiries under KRIA. The corporator had insisted that such questions would hinder the work of government servants, and Subramanya should desist from using the Act to unearth such details. However, Subramanya stood firm. The corporator changed his mind, called him a few days later tried to downplay the incident, even going so far as to say that the episode was a joke! To some users of the KRIA law, the incident suggested a nexus between the corporator and Corporation officials.
Somasekhar of Grahak Shakti (a consumer rights group) reported at the users meeting that Grahak Shakti had filed 3 applications with the Registrar of Cooperative Societies, from whom there was no response. The applications were filed with the objective of unearthing discrepancies and exposing corruption. They aim to follow this case to its logical end, and are preparing to file appeals in the Karnataka Appellate Tribunal (KAT), if needed.
While the KRIA users are becoming active in Karnataka, Maharashtra is seeing key developments. In no small part due to the leadership of noted social crusader Anna Hazare, the state started seeing citizens and activists using the RTI law (MRTI Act) ahead of Karnataka. Several awareness clinics have been organized and awareness and interest in using the law to check corruption and abuse of power has picked up over the last few years. Karnataka has just begun testing the enforcement process of penalties, but Maharashtra RTI users have already fought appeals at the state's LokAyukta in several cases.
Prakash Kardeley, a leading RTI activist and journalist with the Indian Express recently reported encouraging developments to the HumJanenge nationwide RTI user e-group. He said that over 100 citizens attended the interactive-demonstration organised by MRTI Activists members of HumJanenge at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra. The events inauguration by Anna Hazare was followed by interaction between citizens and experienced activists using their RTI files and applications. In addition to citizen participation, both local and national media reportedly covered the event.
Giving a filip to activists working with Centre, Hazare has also sounded a warning that an agitation would have to be launched in case the bureaucracy sabotages, thwarts or dilutes the imminent Central law on Right to Information.
The greater enthusiasm that the Right to Information is beginning to generate among citizens is indicative of a public asserting its acknowledgment of its power in making government actions accountable. Unknown and known activists and organisations are helping citizens increasingly realise that they deserve their Right to Know from the leaders they elect. The December session of the Parliament will indicate how the national legislature responds.