Vijaya Dashmi, October 12, 2005 will go down in Indian history as the day which gave citizens the empowerment to realise Swaraj. This was brought about by the implementation of Act 22 of the the Right To Information Act.
This was a not a new right conferred on citizens, but was an essential part of our Fundamental Rights about which we were ignorant. The Right to Information Act is only a codification of a fundamental right of citizens, to implement and enforce it.
It is the means through which we can make our freedom of expression a meaningful right. If we do not have information on how our government and public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. This has been accepted by various Supreme Court judgments since 1975. All of us accept that the freedom of the press is an essential element for a democracy to function. It is worthwhile to understand the underlying assumption in this well-entrenched belief.
Why is the freedom of the media considered as one of the essential features for a democracy? Democracy revolves around the basic idea of citizens being at the centre of governance and the rule of 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 the main reason 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 rightful owners who have a right to be informed directly.
India has been a reasonably functioning elective democracy for nearly six decades. However, this did not translate into a fair, honest and caring governance structure. As just one indicator, over 40 per cent of India's children suffer from malnutrition.
Was this the 'tryst with destiny' we strove for? Why is it that an apparently functioning democracy could not fulfill the needs of large numbers of its population? The reason was the complete lack of empowerment or respect for the individual citizen. Elections, a Constitution and the existence of the Four Estates, are necessary conditions for a democracy, but cannot by themselves ensure a true participatory democracy.
The essence of democracy is that the citizen is sovereign. In India, a citizen had no effective power to question, let alone getting redressal for legitimate rights.
The Right To Information empowers citizens to ask for information from their government, and has the potential of enforcing the majesty of the Indian citizen. It ensures that a citizen sitting in her house and spending less than an hour and about Rs 50 to 70 can curb corruption, improve policy implementation or sometimes get a grievance redressed.
Citizens do not need to go to any office, or even telephone anybody. They can enforce good governance from their homes. In the event, the public servant treats an RTI requisition with contempt or indifference, he faces the threat of paying a personal penalty for this.
In the last two years, citizens have used it in many innovative ways. Numerous citizens have used this tool to get ration cards, birth certificates, passports, and so on.
Professor Apte used it to get his pension dues and Narayan Verma to get income-tax refunds. Vidya Vaidya used it to get JJ School of Arts to realise that there was an immense treasure of paintings and sculptures in its godowns. A villager in Rajasthan got his free rations under Antyodaya and a little boy of nine forced the police to do their basic duty of filing an FIR.
Recently, data obtained under RTI has inspired citizens to question individual elected representatives to stop a scam worth over Rs 6,000 crore in the Crawford Market redevelopment issue in Mumbai.
Citizens are individually finding new and interesting methods of getting their legitimate work done, challenging corruption or getting better accountability and governance from their government.
Recently I obtained information from the minutes of meeting of Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation of how large projects are managed. This is done in a way, which destroys the very principles of competitive bidding! More importantly, citizens who have begun to use this right regularly have begun to realise that they are individually empowered to challenge the wielders of power. It truly establishes the majesty and sovereignty the citizen. Though as yet the awareness is just beginning to spread across the nation, over 4,000 RTI requisitions are being filed each day. If there are no major bottlenecks in the next three years, I expect the number to go up three-fold.
There are a few threats faced by this infant act, which could reduce its effectiveness.
The arrogance of the rulers makes them want to make it irrelevant. An attempt was made last year to amend the Act, but the government retreated on the move following protests. Activists have also alleged that the Information Commissions have been rather lackadaisical in their orders. In some states like Maharashtra, the pendency has swamped the commission, but innovative means are being tried to overcome this.
In spite of various faults, one advantage has been that most commissioners are up before public gaze and have been generally humble and accessible to the people. This is truly a people's Act, and they are actively spreading and enforcing its implementation. There is no organisation or leader heading the movement and for the first time we have a true citizens' campaign.
In its true sense, the RTI is a citizen's search for the truth about how his government functions -- a satyagraha. The movement is growing relentlessly and will lead India to the 'Swaraj' which we missed in 1947. A quiet peaceful revolution called the 'Right To Information' campaign is sweeping across the nation.