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Right to Information and its implementation through social group work

Written by: Ajay Bishnoi and Hemant Thadhani, Gujarat National Law University
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If you have knowledge, let others light their candles by it. This is the philosophical underpinning of the freedom of movement. Freedom of information and in particular, the right of access to information held by public bodies, has attracted a substantial amount of attention recently. In the past several years, many countries have taken steps to enact legislation giving effect to this. By doing so, these countries join others around the world which have a long tradition to right to information, such as Sweden, the United States, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada.[1]

At this time the right of freedom of information as a cornerstone is more than an accepted notion; it is an obvious fact of life, which has been articulated as a fundamental right in numerous international conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, the right to access to information has not been realized by the majority of India’s people. Rather than protecting citizen’s right to information, India and other developing countries have created a poverty of information through sanctioning an official culture of secrecy. Freedom of information should be analyzed on several different levels. For certain segments of society, for example, the middle and upper classes, access to information often times simply makes life a bit more secure or stable. However, for those who are poor and struggling for literacy, to information becomes crucial.

Without access to, the most vulnerable become even more disenfranchised. In the past, right to information has often been an academic exercise in transparency couched in esoteric terms detached from the realities of grassroots organizations and movements. However, we know from the struggles of these groups that the right to information, if guaranteed and implemented in the spirit, can empower communities to take charge of their lives by participating in decision-making and by challenging corrupt and arbitrary actions at all levels.

This empowerment is particularly significant in developing countries, such as India, which is a nation afflicted with low literacy rates, high birth and infant mortality rates, social and economic tensions, class, caste and communal conflicts, gender discrimination and a relatively poor record of civil rights. The role of social group is significant in gaining the aims of right to information. Social groups like MKSS, use to inform about right to information from the grass root level[2]. It helps a people in knowing their right and to know the actual working of their government. They work on the footmarks of our constitution, as it has been enshrined in article 19 of our constitution.[3]

Brief Outline of Right to Information Act, 2005

When does it come into force?
It comes into force on the 12th October 2005 (120th day of enactment on 15th June, 2005). Some provisions have come into force with immediate effect viz. obligations of public authorities [S.4 (1)], designation of Public Information Officers and Assistant Public Information Officers [S.5 (1) and 5(2)], constitution of Central Commission (S.12 and 13), constitution of State Commission (S.15 and 16), non-applicability of the right to Intelligence and Security Organizations (S.24) and power to make rules to carry out the provisions of the act (S.27 And 28).

Who is covered?
The Act extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir. [S. (12)]

What does Information mean?

Information means any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force but does not include "file noting" [S.2(f)].[4]

What does right to Information mean?

It includes the right to -
i. Inspect works, documents, and records.
ii. Take notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records.
iii. Take certified samples of material.
iv. Obtain in form of printouts, diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts. [S.2 (j)].

The Need of Right to Information

In recent years, there has been an almost unstoppable global trend towards recognition of the right to information by countries, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and the people.[5] The right to information has been recognized as a fundamental human right, which upholds the inherent dignity of all human beings. The right to information forms the crucial underpinning of participatory democracy - it is essential to ensure accountability and good governance[6].
The greater the access of the citizen to information, the greater the responsiveness of government to community needs. Alternatively, the greater the restrictions that are placed on access, the greater the feelings of 'powerlessness' and 'alienation'. Without information, people cannot adequately exercise their rights as citizens or make informed choices.[7]

However, the free flow of information remains severely restricted by three factors:

The legislative framework includes several pieces of restrictive legislation, such as the Official Secrets Act, 1923;
The pervasive culture of secrecy and arrogance within the bureaucracy; and
The low levels of literacy and rights awareness amongst India's people.

Constitutional Guarantees in respect to Right to Information

The fact that the right to information is included in the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression has been recognized by Supreme Court decisions challenging governmental control over newsprint and bans on the distribution of newspapers. In a landmark case the petitioners, publishers of one of the leading national dailies, challenged restrictions in the Newsprint Control Order on the acquisition, sale and use of newsprint. The Supreme Court struck down the restrictions on the basis that they interfered with the petitioners' right to publish and circulate their paper freely, which was included in their right to freedom of speech and expression. In a subsequent case, the Supreme Court held that media controlled by public bodies were required to allow both sides of an issue to be aired.[8]

The right to know has been reaffirmed in the context of environmental issues that have an impact upon people's very survival. Several High Court decisions have upheld the right of citizens' groups to access information where an environmental issue was concerned. For example, in different cases the right to inspect copies of applications for building permissions and the accompanying plans, and the right to have full information about a municipality’s sanitation programme, has been affirmed.

The overall impact of these decisions has been to establish clearly that the right to freedom of information, or the public's right to know, is embedded in the provisions guaranteeing fundamental rights in the Constitution. Various Indian laws provide for the right to access information in specific contexts. Section 76 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, contains what has been termed a 'Freedom of Information Act in embryonic form'. This provision requires public officials to provide copies of public documents to anyone who has a right to inspect them.

The Factories Act, 1948, provides for compulsory disclosure of information to factory workers "regarding dangers including health hazards and the measures to overcome such hazards", arising from their exposure to dangerous materials. While this is an excellent provision, in practice it is violated with impunity.
Regardless of these provisions, the system of governance in India has traditionally been opaque, with the State retaining the colonial Official Secrets Act (OSA) and continuing to operate in secrecy at the administrative level. The OSA enacted in 1923 still retains its original form, apart from some minor amendments in 1967. These provisions have been roundly criticized[9].

The poor flow of information is compounded by two factors -- low levels of literacy and the absence of effective communication tools and processes. In many regions, the standard of record-keeping is extremely poor. Most government offices have stacks of dusty files everywhere; providing an easy excuse for refusing access to records on the specious excuses that they have been 'misplaced'. The rapid growth of information technology, on the other hand, has meant that most states in the country are now trying to promote technology, primarily to attract investment, and this is indirectly contributing to an improved flow of information.

Recent Global Trends

Since the 1980s, the collapse of authoritarianism and the emergence of new democracies have given rise to new constitutions that include specific guarantees of the right to information. At the same time, older democracies such as the United Kingdom are seeing the wisdom of enacting legislation. International bodies such as the Commonwealth, Council of Europe and the Organization of American States have drafted guidelines or model legislation to promote freedom of information. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other donors are also pressing countries to adopt access to information laws as part of an effort to increase transparency and reduce corruption.

Finally, there is agitation from media and civil society groups for greater access to government-held information and for more participation in governance.
9/11 has actually led some countries to limit information access. The restrictions have been most profound in the United States and Canada where proposals to limit national and local freedom of information acts have been adopted. In the UK, implementation of the long-awaited information act has been delayed until 2005.

Importance of Right to Information Act

Sir Humphrey Appleby's remark in the 'Yes Minister' series aptly describes the mindset that has long been the basis of governmental policy in India. For over fifty years after independence, secrecy was the norm in the working of the government, and transparency, the exception. In the guise of protecting the state's interest, secrecy in public affairs has been a shield for those in government, concealing their actions from public scrutiny. Laws that license secrecy are a colonial legacy and were adopted by autocratic regimes to legitimize suppression of information. Secrecy in public affairs is anathema to the very notion of democracy. Access to information, seen from a common man's perspective, empowers the electorate. It demands accountability and transparency, which is fundamental for the functioning of any truly democratic society.

The hallmark of a meaningful democracy is the institutionalization of transparent and participative processes which give the electorate access to information about the government it has brought to power and enables it to make an informed decision to remove that government from power, if it so chooses. Yet laws favoring governmental secrecy dragged on for half a century after India became a democratic republic. Even as the Freedom of Information Act, 2002 came into effect from 6th January 2003, the government continued to grope for pretexts to justify withholding information from the citizen. The Act was criticized because it contained too many exemptions, which were arbitrary and unjust. Pursuant to the Supreme Court's judgment in Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms[10] the government suggested major amendments in the Freedom of Information Act, 2002.

The court held that the freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions, and therefore, covers right to get material information with regard to a candidate who is contesting election for a post which is of utmost importance in the democracy. However, the Freedom of Information Act, 2002 was never put into force. The judgment also constrained the President to pass an ordinance that modified the Representation of the People Act, 1951, making disclosure of criminal proceedings, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications in a pre-election affidavit, non-mandatory. Finally the Right to Information Act was passed in 2005 which mandated a legal-institutional framework for setting out the practical regime of right to information for every citizen to secure access to information under the control of public authorities. It prescribes mandatory disclosure of certain information to citizens, and stipulates Public Information Officers (PIOs) and Assistant Public Information Officers (APIOs) in all public authorities to attend to requests from citizens for information within stipulated time limits.[11]

The importance of the right to information lies in its role in enforcing democratic accountability. This right is important not only for the exercise of political and civil rights but also social and economic rights. Independent information is also important for the people to make informed choices. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner for economics has remarked, "You don't have famines in a country that has a free press." The right, it is argues, is directly related to survival rights and basic needs such as food, water and health. For instance, it is the lack of access to information on AIDS and government's reluctance to impart sex education that has worsened a public health crisis. People must have access to information regarding the environment and the impact of certain things and activities on the environment. In the context of one of the most pressing problems of modern day governance, the right to information is a potent tool for countering corruption. If government is to be clean and accountable there must be access to information[12].

Role of Social Group Work Social groups generally use to work because they believe in, If you don't want to protest, don't complain.

There is one truism about administrative reform: nothing is reformed unless the people demand it. In May 2001, Rajasthan became the first state to pass the Right to Information Act, six years after then chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had promised on the floor of the assembly that the government would allow photocopying of all records of development expenditure at the panchayat level for a fee. This came after public hearings in 1994 organised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS), an organization of agricultural laborers and marginal farmers who highlighted corruption in developmental projects. Nothing happened for a year after Shekhawat's proclamation.

The government changed, and after relentless pressure from the MKSS, the Right to Information and Transparency was passed. Using the Act, the first thing the people of Janawad panchayat in Rajsamand district did was to obtain a copy of an inquiry report into misappropriation of money for developmental works. It was that easy to expose corruption. Today Magsaysay Award-winner and MKSS activist Aruna Roy [13]is far from satisfied with the implementation of the Act. Government, as she well knows, has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the altar of transparency. Still, the fact remains that Rajasthan is the only state where you can legally force the government to open up.[14]

The key is to demand. No government in the world does this voluntarily. The sunshine laws in the US, as the Freedom of Information Act is called, came into being only after there was a demand for it. Today, it's a right that's taken for granted.

One more social group working for the implementation of Right to Information is “National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), India”. The NCPRI is a movement of committed individuals working towards making our government and society more transparent and accountable. The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) seeks to empower people and to deepen democracy, through promoting people’s right to information. Through the use of this right, it seeks to fight corruption and social apathy, to make governments, and other institutions and agencies having an impact on public welfare, more humane and accountable to the people, and to promote efficiency and frugality. As a first step, the NCPRI and the Press Council of India formulated an initial draft of a right to information (RTI) law. This draft, after extensive discussions, was sent to the Government of India in 1996. The Government finally introduced the Freedom of Information Bill in Parliament, in 2002. This was a very watered down version of the Bill first drafted by the NCPRI and others in 1996.[15]

The importance of the right to information lies in its role in enforcing democratic accountability. This right is important not only for the exercise of political and civil rights but also social and economic rights. Independent information is also important for the people to make informed choices. In order to implement Right to Information to its full extent need of social group is must. As they campaigns for the enactment and use of a right to information law that is effective and accessible to all, and supports people’s efforts at developing the ability and motivation to use the right to information for addressing individual and social problems. It works at disseminating the RTI law and encourages and supports the development of materials related to transparency and governance, the raising of awareness about the fundamental value of information, the conduct of research, and the setting up of information clearing houses. So, the role of social groups in implementing goals of Right to Information is foremost.

End notes
[3] P.M. Bakshi, The Constitution of India, Universal publishing co., edition 2006, Page no.34
[8] -
[10] 1 (2002) 5 SCC 294
[11] - 61k

Related Articles:
The Right to Information Act 2005
Right to information is more or less a universal concept
Right To Information - A Tool For Good Governance
Right to information as a procedural justice
Setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizen
Right to Information - An Overview
Freedom of Press

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