So it’s been 10 years since the Right to Information Act started working in India. It came as a welcome relief for the citizens of India who used to find themselves banging against a brick wall when they tried to get even simple information out of government officials.
Looking at 10 things about RTI which you may or may not know…
1. RTI kaun laya? Who brought RTI to India? For that many can claim credit. First the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) was founded in 1987 by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey. It was one of the very first campaigners for such a concept.
That led to the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) in 1996. In the very same year the Press Council of India formulated a draft on the issue. Immediately after that many RTI Acts were introduced in States like Tamil Nadu and Goa in 1997. This was followed by Delhi (2001) and Karnataka and Rajasthan (2002).
Consumer Rights champion HD Shourie was roped in by the NDA government and that led to the Freedom of Information Act of 2002. It finally became a full-fledged reality called RTI during UPA1 in 2005.
2. Why it was necessary: To counter the Official Secrets Act 1923. It is amazing how much British legislation remained untouched after 1947 and quite a lot of it is unaltered to this very day. While the Secrets Act was initially an anti-espionage measure, later it was used by the government to protect anything.
Like the Act stated that citizens couldn’t even “approach, inspect, or even pass over a prohibited government site or area”! The RTI Act of 2005 finally countered it and it was further watered down by a court ruling in 2009.
3. Applicability: The law talks of “access to information under the control of public authorities”. That means that any citizen in India can approach any “public authority” of a body of Government or “instrumentality of State” for the same. There is a 30 day limit for a reply.
In fact the ambit was widened even further and made applicable for bodies “owned, controlled or substantially financed” by the Government.
4. Exclusions: There is also a move to bring political parties into the Act. Agencies like CBI, IB, RAW, ED etc are excluded. Also is information that may affect the security and sovereignty of India, that which has been withheld by a court or that which comes under the privileges of Parliament and State Assemblies.
5. Very first RTI application: On October 12, 2005, a person called Shahid Raza Burney submitted India’s first ever Right To Information application to a police station in Pune and thus we entered the RTI age.
6. J&K remains special: Article 370 of the Constitution confers a special autonomous status to Jammu & Kashmir. And it is out of the ambit of the RTI too. However it’s not that they don’t have access. They have to rely on the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act of 2009.
7. RTI successes: Overall it has been hugely successful and has helped citizens get crucial information. One of the biggest successes has been getting information in the Adarsh scam. It also helped expose corruption in the Public Distribution System in Assam.
While there are national and State level scams, it has helped unearth hundreds of wrongdoings at the local level.
8. RTI deaths: While RTI activism became an industry, attacks on RTI activists followed. The number of such attacks now number hundreds and dozens have been killed. Lalit Mehta was exposing a NREGA scam and was killed in 2008.
Satish Shetty was exposing land scams in Maharashtra and was stabbed to death in 2010. In the same year Amit Jethwa was shot in the Ahmedabad High Court complex. He was exposing a mining scam. There are many such stories which talk of the bravery of RTI activists.
9. Other counties have it too: America led the way when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. Other countries too followed though many took decades to do so. However America did have a rethink and they curbed it via the Privacy Act of 1974.
10. 10 rupees: That’s the application fee. However the applicant may have to subsequently pay more towards the cost of providing the actual information. There are provisions to make requests online too.