The Right to Information movement in India has come a long way since it started a decade ago in India’s desert state of Rajasthan. Volunteers from the now famous Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan began their campaign for a social audit of the money the village government in Beawar had spent on public works. They were the first to use slogans like “The Right to Know is the Right to Live”, and “Our Money, Our Accounts”, forcing the government to take notice and ultimately open themselves up for public scrutiny. Seven states and Delhi enacted their RTI Act before the NDA-headed Central government woke up to the reality that RTI in India was here to stay and passed its own Freedom of Information Act in 2002. Jammu and Kashmir passed their Act in 2004.
Civil society groups trashed the FOIA as weak and ineffective. The UPA government after being elected kept its promise in the Common Minimum Programme and involved civil society groups in the redrafting process. Today, we have the new avatar of the FOIA 2002-the Right to Information Bill (RTI), 2005- awaiting Presidential assent. RTI activists and groups consider this Bill to be very strong and with great potential to demand information and bring in transparency.
But that is exactly where the problem lies. We, the people of India- citizens now, under the Bill- still have to demand information by requesting for it. We still have to pay for the information that we request for, and then wait while our application gets processed. The decision regarding whether to give or deny us the requested information still lies with the government. Thus, the government still remains our master, we still remain subjects who would be subject-pun intended-to the decision made by our sarkar.
But, all is not lost. The Bill does provide that “it shall be the endeavour of every public authority…to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication…so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information”.
This is where India can make use of best practice examples to establish an apparatus by which the government actually goes about providing information freely, by placing information in the public domain where people can access it without having to request. Of course this would be by making information freely available on the net and in hard copies too, and in any other form and in places where people can-easily- access information. However, users of the net do emerge as favoured information seekers, especially because they get to know what information is available freely, with it just being a click away. But then again, we need to start somewhere.
Civil society groups should take the initiative to help government get information to the most remote and unlettered people in India-be they minutes of meetings, committee reports, organisation structure, or information regarding subsidies, tenders and any other bit of information that is otherwise freely available on the net and is of interest to the masses. The UK Freedom of Information Act 2000, for example, requires each public authority to adopt and maintain a publication scheme whose purpose is to “specify the classes of information that the authority publishes or intends to publish; the form in which this is or will be done; and whether there is any charge for the information.
Each scheme must be approved by the Information Commissioner”. It is well worth noting here that the Information Commissioner is an independent public official responsible directly to Parliament. What makes the UK information access regime, well, advanced, is that the apparatus to translate voluntary disclosure into practice is already in place, and perhaps more importantly, there is also a culture of openness. Government departments in UK have on their website a Freedom of Information link. The Department of Health, for example, has an FOI link, which provides sub-links to the UK Freedom of Information Act (in simple, lay person language), the method to process an application with specific contact details of officials to direct the application to, complaints process if applicant is unhappy with the way a request for information has been handled (as provided for in the Act), publication scheme (all classes of information, publications, library of publications, inspections reports, how to order publications etc.), latest information releases (based on requests for information), feedback form, name and contact details of official who is accountable for maintaining the publication scheme in a way that meets the objective of the FOIA etc. By adopting a model like the one elaborated above is one way by which the Central Act can move several steps ahead of the States’ Acts.
An elaborate set-up that already places in the public domain most information, which the government believes to be of interest and/or concern to the public with a specification whether the information is available free of charge or not, is indeed a more effective one than one that expects citizens to request for information and then pay for that information while they wait endlessly for it.
One way to ensure that the government actually places relevant information in the public domain is for it to quantify all the most demanded requests and then voluntarily disclose that information without anybody having to request it anymore. Civil society groups are trying to see this through in the rules. Here, instead of simply compiling data on the number of requests that have been made to each public authority-as the Bill provides- the Ministry/Department can also quantify the types of requests made. This should enable the suo motu release of information that is most requested. While preparing its annual report, the appropriate Information Commissioner can, on the basis of the data acquired from the Ministry/Department, monitor whether such suo motu disclosure is actually being effectuated or not.
The only hitch here is that the Central/State Information Commissioner will be appointed by an internal committee, headed by the Prime Minister, and comprising of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a Union Cabinet Minister nominated by the Prime Minister (the State Information Commissioner will be appointed by the corresponding posts in the States) – i.e., the ‘independent’ oversight body will not be so independent after all! In many developed countries that have the RTI Act, most of the information of interest and/or concern to the people is already available. Perhaps that is why the RTI Act seems to work better there. In such a set-up, the information seeker will only have to request and pay for certain classes of information, which have already been specified as not freely available. The debate then is no longer what the government can or will reveal, but what it can hide from the public, who elected it to power to look after their interest.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.