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The Right To Information Act: A Real Step To Ensure Good Governance - Article 19

Written by: Nishant Gaurav Gupta - Vth Year, National Law Institute University, Bhopal
Legal Profession
Legal Service India.com
  • The date of 12th October, 2005 shall be remembered as a new era of empowerment for the common man in India. With the passing of the Right of Information Act on the aforesaid date, a faceless citizen is now blessed with a tool with the help of which he can now demand from the high and mighty in the government to know the details of every action they take, professedly on behalf of the people. - "if secrecy were to be observed in the functioning of government and the processes of government were to be kept hidden from public scrutiny, it would tend to promote and encourage oppression, corruption and misuse or abuse of authority for it would be all shrouded in the veil of secrecy without any public accountability. But if there is an open government with means of information available to public, there would be greater exposure of the functioning of the government and it would help to assure the people a better and more efficient administration".

    With the Right to Information Act coming into force, it seems that the foresight of an open government is going to be true. This paper intends to analyze the implications of this landmark legislation on the masses and the government as to how this law shall be helpful in good governance, transparency and accountability in a country where maximizing of justice is an urgent necessity.

    The Right To Information And Article 19 Of The Constitution:

    This Right to Information (RTI) is basically a derivative of the Article 19 of the Constitution which deals with protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc. it says, "All the citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression." The idea is that if we do not have information on how our Government and public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. To know this right in a more better way, we should try to understand the freedom of press.

    The freedom of the press is an essential element for a democracy to function. The justification is that the democracy revolves round the basic idea of citizens being at the centre of governance - rule of the people. We need to define the importance of the concept of freedom of the press from this fundamental premise. It is obvious that the main reason for a free press is to ensure that citizens are informed. If this is one of the main reasons for the primacy given to the freedom of the press, it clearly flows from this that the citizens' right to know is paramount. Also, since the government is run on behalf of the people, they are the owners who have a right to be informed directly. Justice Mathews ruled in the case of State of UP v. Raj Narain said, "In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security".

    Thus, the Right to Information Act is a codification of this important fundamental right (Article 19) of citizens. The right has existed since the time India became a republic, but was difficult to enforce without going to court. The Act and its rules define a format for requisitioning information, a time period within which information must be provided within 30 days , method of giving the information and some exemptions . All this information can be derived by accompanying such fee as may be prescribed, to
    (a) the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, of the concerned public authority;
    (b) the Central Assistant Public Information Officer or State Assistant Public Information Officer, as the case may be, specifying the particulars of the information sought by the person interested.

    The principle is that charges should be minimum more as a token. They are not at all representative of the costs that may be incurred. Citizens can ask for information by getting Xerox copies of documents, permissions, policies, and decisions. Inspection of files can also be done and samples can be asked for. All administrative offices of public authorities have to appoint `Public Information Officers (PIO). Citizens can apply for information to the PIO of the office concerned. If it is not provided or is refused, the citizen can go to an Appellate Authority who would be an official in the same department, senior to the PIO. If this too does not produce a satisfactory result, one can appeal to the State or Central Information Commissioner, an independent Constitutional Authority being established under the Act.

    Penal Provisions Under The Act

    One of the major reasons for the success of the Maharashtra and Delhi Right to Information Acts is that there is a provision for penalising the PIO in case he does not give the information within the mandated period. The National Act, which has drawn a lot of inspiration from the Maharashtra Act, also provides for a penalty for delay on the PIO at a rate of Rs.250 a day . There is also provision for disciplinary action against recalcitrant PIOs in some cases . Thus the Right to Information provides for a time bound and defined process for citizens to access information about all actions taken by public authorities. The penal provisions are the strength of the Act, which ensure that the PIO does not treat citizens' demands for information in a cavalier manner. The primary power of RTI is the fact it empowers individual citizens to requisition information. Hence without necessarily forming pressure groups or associations, it puts power directly into the hands of the foundation of democracy - the citizens. There will certainly be an attempt to subvert this revolutionary right by the ruling coterie, since it strikes at the basics of their power. This can easily be countered if enough citizens use the Act. Citizens can use the right from their own houses and usually it does not take more than about two hours to make an RTI application.

    There is a great need to spread the usage of this countrywide, so that transparency and good governance triumph. We now have the power; we only need to use it. It is simple to use, and the benefits are immense.

    Conclusion:
    A law codifying people's right to know how their representatives and servants in the government function on their behalf is certainly not the ultimate in people's empowerment in a democracy, nor a panacea to all their problems. Yet, it surely is a major step in that direction. Access to information so far was confined to a privileged few in the country. Someone dismissed as inconsequential can now invoke the law and demonstrate that in a democracy no one is inconsequential and demand from the self-proclaimed monarchs an account for money collected from the citizens in taxes. If these monarchs hesitate to change their old habits, the citizen can now invoke the stern intervention of the judiciary in forcing them to submit to the law of the land. Full credit goes to National Advisory Council under the chairmanship of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for creating the right kind of political will that was a prerequisite for such a paradigm shift and gifting the people a long awaited piece of legislation on transparency when nine constituent states had already ushered it in and at least four ? Delhi, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Karnataka ? had successfully implemented it. After becoming operational across the country on October 12, this law promises to be a single piece of legislation that can result in the victory of participatory democracy. It is a right that has belonged to us since our nation became a republic, and the citizens are expected to make best use of it. It has been truly said that an open government is clean government and a powerful safeguard against political and administrative aberration and inefficiency.

    The author can be reached at: ngg52@legalserviceindia.com / Print This Article

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