RTI is exposing their arrogance and hence they try to discredit the Act by often talking about its misuse. If RTI Act is muzzled, soon we may have to provide reasons even for speaking. We must defend our democracy
There is a very disturbing news reports about the entire political spectrum agreeing that Right to Information (RTI) Act is misused and some constrictions should be developed to muzzle it. This is indeed a sad state of affairs. Samajwadi Party’s member of Parliament (MP) Naresh Agarwal has levelled a charge that the Indian Parliament passed the RTI Act under US pressure! I would have imagined that other MPs would have raised a breach of privilege motion against him. Unfortunately, such a derogatory remark about Indian Parliament did not result in any protests by other MPs. Praful Patel of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) made a remark, which was still worse. He had objections to the poor- paanwaala and chaiwaala- seeking information under RTI. He then genuflected before the most famous chaiwaala of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and said the PM is an exception. His implication was that if you are a chaiwaala who is not the PM, how dare you a low down person seek information from the government? The government appears to have been willing to go along that path. Rajiv Shukla of the Congress party also went along with this, almost repudiating his own party’s biggest achievement. I remember former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poem (slightly modified by me):
कौरव कौन, कौन पांडव, टेढ़ा सवाल है;
दोनो ओर, शकुनी का फैला कूटज़ाल है,
धर्मराज ने छोडी नही, जुए की लत है,
हर पंचायत मे, पांचाली अपमानित है,
बिना कृष्णा के आज महाभारत होना है,
कोई राजा बने, रंक को तो रोना है.
अब उठ और अपने RTI की रक्षा कर,
वरना तेरी लोकशाही निवस्त्रा हो जाएगी,
गांडीव उठा अगर भारतकी रक्षा करनी है.
Citizens must get together and give an effective message that they will not tolerate a retrograde attack on their fundamental Right to Information. If they shackle RTI by labelling some applications as ‘misuse’ they will refuse most information which reveals corruption and arbitrariness. As an Information Commissioner who dealt with over 20,000 cases, I had the opportunity of interacting with a large number of RTI users and Public Information Officers (PIOs).
Generally, PIOs would refer to most applicants who filed RTI applications regularly as blackmailers, harassers and those who were misusing the Act. I would broadly divide those who filed a large number of RTI applications in the following categories:
Those who filed RTI applications with the hope of exposing corruption or arbitrariness and hoped to improve and correct governance.
Those who filed RTI applications repetitively to correct a wrong, which they perceived had been done to them.
Those who used RTI to blackmail people. This category largely targets illegal buildings, mining or some other activities, which runs foul of the law.
All these categories together comprised around 10% of the total appeals and complaints. This represent persistent users of RTI and those who are generally knowledgeable about appeals and procedures. Nobody will deny that the first category deserves to be encouraged and is growing steadily. In the second category, there are some who have been able to get corrective action and some whose grievance may defy resolution. Generally, most of us have a strong aversion for the third category who are making it a money-earning racket. This category certainly does not exceed 5% of the total.
I would argue that in the implementation of most laws some people would misuse its provisions. The police often misuse their powers to subvert the law, and so criminals too misuse our judicial system to prolong trials. The misuse of laws is largely dependent on the kind of people in a society and whether the justice system has the capability of punishing wrongdoers. There are people who go to places of worship with the sole objective of committing theft or other crimes. But society does not define these as their main characteristic. Is it reasonable to expect that only angels will use RTI?
I would submit that the powerful finds RTI upsetting their arrogance and hence try to discredit the Act by often talking about its misuse. I have often questioned government officers how the blackmailers operate. They state that the RTI blackmailer threatens an illegal action with exposure and thereby extorts money. I wonder why society has such touching empathy for the victims who have committed illegal acts. If RTI is muzzled by asking people to define why they want information, soon we will have to provide reasons for speaking. We must defend our democracy.
(Shailesh Gandhi served as Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act, 2005, during 18 September 2008 to 6 July 2012. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from IIT-Bombay. Before becoming a full time RTI activist in 2003, he sold his packaging business. In 2008, he was conferred the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Award for civil liberties.)