RTI – UPSC GS2

Facts:
  • Only 36 per cent in rural and 38 per cent urban areas have heard of the RTI Act
  • 45% public information officers did not received any training
What is RTI:
  • 10 years of the Act
  • Many significant disclosures like – 2G, CWG
  • Became very popular among educated and city dwellers
  • Led to the demand of several other equally important rights like Right to employment guarantee, RTE, and the Right to food security
  • Had the effect of slackening the tight hold of the government and officials on both information and instrumentalities of the state –> Slow withering of government
  • More successful with respect to personal information and information of innocuous nature. But as a tool to inculcate value of transparency, the RTI has neither sunk deep into government nor among most of the citizenry
  • Many small time black mailers –> make living out of it and settle personal scores
  • Judiciary has not been fully enthusiastic in its implementation
  • Long Pendency in most Information Commissions – some even for year or more – signals their casual approach. This in turn emboldens public authorities to take RTI casually
  • Widespread reluctance to penalise errant government official also contributes to a general sense of laxity in the enforcement of law
  • The absence of enforcement provisions in the law has rendered IC’s toothless
  • Law is ambitious and unrealistic –> very wide definitions of “public authority” and “information” –> massive volume and variety of information can be sought –> huge burden on public authorities
  • Poor record keeping –> retrieval of information is very cumbersome –> inspite of mandate in law public authorities have failed to digitise their records
  • In most offices the PIO is a reluctant low-level official without much clue about the information held or sought –> sub-optimal and unsatisfactory information being provided
  • Empowerment of Citizenry: Converts individuals into users and users into activists
Data: At least 50 lakh RTI applications filed in India every year
Important exemptions of RTI Act:
  • Section 24 of the RTI Act 2005 says that this law is not applicable to the intelligence and security organisations specified in the Second Schedule. However, the only exception these organisations have is for information on allegations of corruption and human rights violations
  • Second Schedule: It includes 26 intelligence and security agencies under its ambit. Some of them are (i) Intelligence Bureau (IB), (ii) Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Cabinet Secretariat (iii) Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), (iv) Special Frontier Force (SFF), (v) Border Security Force (BSF) (vi) National Security Guards (NSG) and (Vii) Assam Rifles
  • Section 8 of the RTI: It deals with exemption from disclosure of information under this legislation. It says that there shall be no obligation on Government to provide any citizen information, disclosure which will affect (i) India’s sovereignty and integrity, (ii) security, (iii) strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state and (iv) relations with foreign States or (v) will lead to incitement of an offence
Inclusion of Political Parties under the ambit of RTI
There has been a pressing demand for the inclusion of political parties under the ambit of RTI considering the following reasons:
  1. They have an important impact on the working of the government irrespective of the fact that the party is ruling or in opposition. This gains more importance considering the fact that Indian political system is heterogeneous and sometimes it is alleged that the political parties are keenly representing a particular section on the cost of the whole country.
  2. RTI in the political parties would also help the public to take rational decisions while voting by judging the parties on the parameters of integrity, upkeep of internal democracy in the party, participation of women and Dalits in the party ranks, etc.
  3. It will also lead to (along with election reforms) decrease in corrupt practices related to elections, due to better transparency and accountability.
  4. Parties having such stakes in governance, people have the right to information guaranteed under article 19. Also, The RPA, 1951, under Section 29A affirms the allegiance of political parties to the constitution of India, which is compulsory.
  5. Given the current state of party financing, where more than 75% of their income comes from unknown sources, and a well-known fact about the involvement of black money in party finances, bringing them under the RTI Act will ensure transparency and may be a trigger for bigger party reforms
  6. Presence of lobbying has made society fearful about the invisible hand behind many party agendas.
So far, the political parties have stonewalled the issue and have not complied with the order. A parliamentary panel setup to look into the issue stated against political parties coming under the RTI Act, reasoning that,
  1. The subsidy provided to the political parties is a paltry sum to the total expenditure.
  2. It will severely hamper their independence and functioning, and it is possible for rival political parties to misuse the RTI. This will also encourage rival political parties to access secret political information.
  3. Political parties are not pubic authorities as they are neither established nor  constituted by or under the constitution or any other law made by the parliament.
  4. They claim that bringing them under RTI will negatively affect their political strategy making.
Critical Analysis of Performance of RTI
  • Right to Information Act was hailed as an important event in the democracy of India. It provided people with power to gain information and to use that information to assert their other rights and provide a check on the working governmental authorities by bringing transparency and accountability.
  • But the implementation of RIT act did not happen as was imagined:There are many areas which are out of limits of RIT act (Even, application of RTI to judiciary and legislature is limited).The exclusion of law enforcement agencies is major cause of discontent of RIT supporters.Disregard of announcements of Chief Information Commission by political parties indicate the lack of power to enforce the rulings of  CIC.The recent controversy of non-appointment of CIC for a long-time shows the apathy of government towards the act.Official Secrets Act, framed by colonial power still restricts much information out of the purview whether they did not have any relevance to security and integrity of India. For example Correspondence related to Subhash Chandra Bose.All the government organisations were asked to put in public general information but this was not followed by many institutions and there is no deadline to this provision.Appointment of IC is partisanInformation is presented in a technical language by government departmentsMaintenance of information is not automated and efficientAwareness of act is low among massesCosts is sometimes highBureaucratic pre-eminence in information commissions results in promotion of traditional bureaucratic ethos of secrecy and lack of accountability.
  • Performance wise other than the implementation failure RTI is effectively been used by activists even at the cost of their life. Various Public Interest Litigations are filed in courts to change the course of executive. The base of recent check on public advertisement was based on the findings of RTI.
  • RIT is a strong tool to use the democratic space provided in India. Some problems still remain in implementation and provisions but overall RTI is effectively use by many activists and can provide a check on excessive and unnecessary power of executive and other governmental bodies.
OSA & RTI
The recent leaks of Official Secrets from key ministries have once again brought to the fore the controversial debate on the utility of the Official Secrets Act, 1923. The OSA was enacted keeping in view the National Security and Sovereignty. It made an offence to obtain, collect, record, publish a secret document. However, it was so vast in its scope that it made it prone to misuse and gave the executive a carte blanche to act arbitrarily. This situation gave rise to many problems. Some of which are as following:
  1. Problem of classification of information as the word Secret was nowhere defined in the Act. Govt. has a wide discretion to classify any information as secret.
  2. The excessive discretion many a times lead to arbitrariness which can give rise to discrimination and subvert the right to equality under Art. 14.
  3. It also violated the freedom of speech and expression under Art. 19(1)(a).
  4. As Right to freedom of information has been incorporated under broad ambit of Right to Life, the OSA,1923 violated Article 21.
  5. There were many ambiguities regarding determination of an offence, prosecution procedures etc. It being a Penal law, the ambiguities favored the accused.
Many of these problems are now taken care of after the advent of RTI Act, 2005 which expressly provided that the RTI Act will override any other Act to the extent of conflict. However, a nation cannot just wish away a statute of the nature of OSA,1923. Such an  act is imperative in the matters of national security, friendly relations with foreign nations & maintenance of law and order. Even some pro-information SC judgements like that in the S.P. Gupta Vs UOI have upheld the need for such law. But at the same time, it is equally indisputable that fundamental rights of citizens cannot be compromised.
The RTI Act,2005 plays a vital balancing role here. To protect the national interests, it provides for necessary exemptions to the disclosure of information which support the OSA, 1923. At the same time, it checks the arbitrariness of the OSA,1923 by making the procedure and intent of secrecy transparent and accountable.
Note: ARC-II recommended repealing OSA,1923 and Safeguards for state security should be incorporated in the National Security Act.
Intelligence agencies & RTI
Government of India has notified 25 security and intelligence organisations as exempt from the ordinary obligations of transparency under the RTI Act like their parent departments and ministries and other public authorities. But, they are required to provide access to information,  if it relates to allegations of corruption and human rights violation.
Some cases like:
1. In 2010, Exercising his Right to Information, a petitioner, had asked for information related to cases of corruption, human rights violation and sexual exploitation in IB, RAW and Central Paramilitary Forces, but information provided was only about Assam rifles, while other agencies denied information.
2. In 2008, RAW official had allegedly attempted suicide before the prime minister’s office claiming sexual harassment by her superiors. But, RTI on this is still pending before CIC.
Thus, we can see that security agencies are wrongfully cited section 24 of RTI Act. They are bound to provide information on all matters except of National security, ongoing investigations or sensitive matter which may cause harm to law and order. Government must amendment RTI Act, 2005 to clear such rule in section 24, if necessary.
It is also essential for Government to bring the law which governs the working of Security agencies such as RAW, IB, other intelligence entities by act of Parliament same as USA and Britain.
Thus, though mandate of Security and Intelligence agencies are different from other “public” bodies, they can’t act as an alien to governance and public scrutiny.
Related Questions :
  • There are strong pleas to bring political parties under the ambit of RTI law. Analyse why. Also register your opinion on the issue. (200 Words)
    Critically comment on the implementation and performance of the Right to Information Act. (200 Words)
    It is often argued that the Official Secrets Act (OSA) which is of 1923 vintage and a complicated piece of legislation has no reason to remain on our statute books after the Right to Information Act of 2005. In the light of leak of important information from key ministries of the union government, critically comment. (200 Words)
    Should intelligence agencies provide information to the public under the Right to Information Act? Substantiate. (200 Words)
  • “Secrecy in government operations is necessary, but it has to be limited by absolute necessity, keeping the confidentiality strictly time-bound.” In the light of recent debate on Official Secrets Act 1923, critically comment on the statement. (200 Words)