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Right to Information Act- A Brief Introduction

Democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed, says the preamble of the Indian Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.

Information as a term has been derived from the Latin words ‘formation’ and ‘forma’ which means giving shape to something, and forming a pattern respectively. Information is needed by human beings to realize their full social, political and economic potential. It is the key which helps make decisions. It is also a public resource collected and stored by government in trust for people.

The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) is a Central Legislation “to provide for setting out the particular regime of right to information for citizens”. The right to Information Bill, 2005 was passed by the Lok Sabha on May 11, 2005 and by the Rajya Sabha on May 12, 2005 and received the assent of the President of India on June 15, 2005 and came to force on October 12, 2005.It has replaced the Freedom of Information Act, 2002.

This act is applicable throughout India except the state of Jammu and Kashmir. (Jammu and Kashmir has a similar act which was enacted in 2009.) This law is very comprehensive and covers almost all matters of governance and has the widest possible reach, being applicable to Government at all levels- Union, State and Local as well as recipients of government grants.[1]

The Right to Information Act is in accord with Article 19 of the Constitution of India, which enables Indians to exercise their fundamental Right of Speech, Expression and – as often interpreted by the Supreme Court – “the inalienable Right to receive and impart Information”. Currently, the RTI Act in India is passing through a decisive phase, much more needs to be done to facilitate its growth and development.

Objectives of RTI
Good governance has four elements- transparency, accountability, predictability and participation and RTI helps in achieving the same.[3]

Right to Information is just like oxygen for democracy. It stands for transparency. Information would lead to openness, accountability and integrity. Besides, apart from ensuring greater transparency it also acts as a deterrent against the arbitrary exercise of public powers. A culture of individual action, political consciousness and public spirit is the basis for the success of democracy.

“Open Government is the new democratic culture of an open society towards which every liberal democracy is moving and our country should be no exception. In a country like India which is committed to socialistic pattern of society, right to know becomes a necessity for the poor, ignorant and illiterate masses.”[4]

Objective of the Act is to establish “the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commission and for matters connected therewith and incidental thereto.”[2]

Greater Accountability: One of the brilliant features of RTI is that it makes public authorities answerable to the general public, which strengthen the participatory democracy. Every public authorities is required to provide reasons for its administrative and quasi-judicial decisions to the affected persons u/s 4(1)(d) of the Act, and hence the possibility of arbitrariness reduce to the great extent.
# The worldwide accepted indicators of good governance over the period of time are:[7]
# Voice and accountability
# Political stability and absence of violence
# Government effectiveness
# Regulatory quality
# Rule of law
# Control of corruption

Greater Transparency: Rights which are provided in various sections of the Act certainly facilitates the greater transparency in work of public authorities. For instance, under section 2(j), of the Act, a citizen has the right to:
# Inspection of work, documents, records
# Taking notes extracts or certified copies of the documents or records
# Taking certified sample of material, and
# Obtaining information in electronic form, if available
# Under section 4(1)(d) of the Act, a public authority is required to provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decision to the affected persons.

The commission u/s 20(1) has power to impose penalties or to recommend disciplinary action against the information providers, if held for being stone in path of the free flow of information. In other words, intention of the framers of this Act is that there should not be any bottle neck in the process of free flow of information to the citizens. The citizens are thus better informed about the performance and contributions of the elected representatives, which augurs well for a healthy democracy and democratic governance of projects.

Right To Information: A Global View
Over 50 countries now have freedom of information laws and another 15-20 are actively considering adopting one. These nations are joined by a growing number of inter-Governmental bodies – including the World Bank, European Union and UNDP – that have established FOI policies. It provides that all citizens enjoy rights of freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, a guarantee now generally considered to include an obligation of openness on the part of Government.[8]

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 had a catalytic effect on movements for open government, worldwide. Many democratic countries have taken legislative action to give its citizens a right of access to information in the possession of the government and its agencies. USA passed the Freedom of Information Act, 1966, which was extensively amended in 1974, and again 1976, 1983. Canada enacted Access to Information Act in 1982. Australia and New Zealand also passed similar legislation in 1982 and 1983, respectively. In keeping with the spirit of the Universal Declaration of 1948 and its Article 19, the Preamble of the Constitution of India, adopted in 1950, has in its Article 19(1)(a) provides exactly similar guarantees to the citizens, the right to ‗freedom of speech and expression‘ as one of the fundamental rights listed in Part III of the Constitution.

More than 50 countries now have guaranteed their citizens the right to know. However, freedom of information legislation is not a new concept. It has been into existence since 18th century as evident in the case of Sweden. The history of RTI is a struggle between the power of the state and that of the civil society. The degree of success has invariably been determined by their relative strengths, although external factors may have sometimes played a role. In many regions enactment of RTI had resulted from the fall of authoritarian regime.

Important Features of Right To Information Act, 2005
# All citizens possess the right to information
# The term Information includes any mode of information in any form of record, document, e-mail, circular, press release, contract sample or electronic data etc.
# Rights to information covers inspection of work, document, record and its certified copy and information in form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes in any electronic mode or stored informations in computer etc.
# Applicant can obtain Information within 30 days from the date of request in a normal case
# Information can be obtained within 48 hours from time of request. If it is a matter of life or liberty of a person.
# Every public authority is under obligation to provide information on written request or request by electronic means.
# Certain information is prohibited.
# Restrictions made for third party information Appeal against the decision of the Central Information Commission or State Information Commission can be made to an officer who is senior in rank.
# Penalty for refusal to receive an application for information or for not providing information is Rs. 250/- per day but the total amount of penalty should not exceed Rs. 25,000/-.
# Central Information Commission and State Information Commission are to be constituted by the Central Government and the respective State Governments.
# No Court can entertain any suit, application or other proceedings in respect of any order made under the Act.

The aforesaid mentioned promote transparency in government organisations, makes them function more objectively thereby enhancing predictability. In a fundamental sense, right to information is a basic necessity of good governance.[9]

Other Legal Provisions
Prior to the enactment of a comprehensive law on access to information in 2005 several Indian laws provided for the right to access information in a specific context. • Section 76 of the Indian Evidence Act, contains what has been termed as freedom of information in embryonic form. This provision requires public officials to provide copies 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 also the measures to overcome such hazards. • The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and environmental Impact Assessment Regulations provide for instances of public consultation and allow access to information about the pollution caused by industries covered by the regulations. Recently, the Commission to review the Constitution of India in its report recommends explicit inclusion of right to information including freedom of press and other media as a fundamental right.

“Government ought to be all outside and no inside... Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety”.-Woodrow Wilson

End-Notes
[1] http://rti.gov.in/rticorner/guideonrti.pdf
[2] First Report, Second Administrative Reforms Commission, Right To Information June 2006, Master Key to Good Governance
[4] SP Gupta v. UOI (AIR) 1982 SC (149)
[5] Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, addressing at the 10th Annual Convention of RTI law.
[6] Dr. Manmohan Singh former Prime Minister of India, Valedictory Address at the National Convention on RTI, October 15, 2006
[7] http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/resources.htm
[8] World Bank, “Legislation on Freedom of Information: Trends and Standards,” PREM Note No.93, October, 2004.
[9] First Report, Second Administrative Reforms Commission, Right To Information June 2006, Master Key to Good Governance
[10] The Right to Information Act, 2005, A Guide for Civil Society Organizations

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