Even though the Central government’s statement in the Lok Sabha at the close of the year 2018 came, loud and clear, that there is “no specific information that the Right to Information (RTI) Act is being misused” and that there are enough inbuilt clauses for denial of information within the RTI Act in case someone seeks information that should not be revealed, the year 2019 saw heavyweights in the judiciary and political arena badmouthing the Act and humiliating those who have been effectively using it and spreading its use.
Just to recall, as the year 2018 ended, Ram Kumar Sharma, the member of Parliament (MP) from Bihar asked a question in the Lok Sabha to the prime minister (PM), whether there is gross misuse of the RTI Act; and if so, the reaction of the government in this regard; whether the government has obtained proof of this misuse and; the steps taken by the government to check this misuse.
Dr Jitendra Singh, the minister of state in the ministry of personnel public grievances and pensions and minister of state in the PMO office, replied on 19 December 2018 in the Lok Sabha that “no specific information of gross misuse of the RTI Act 2005 has been brought to the notice of the government of India and that “the right of seeking information under the RTI Act 2005 is not unfettered. The safeguards against misuse are built inter-alia in Section 8 - exemption from disclosure of information, Section 9 - grounds for rejection to access in certain cases, Section 11 – third party information, Section 24 – Act not to apply to certain organisations etc.”
However, throughout 2019, several bigwigs insisted on destroying the image of the one and only citizen-friendly and citizen-empowering law of our country, the RTI Act.
The most recent critic is Sharad Arvind Bobde, the Chief Justice of India at the Supreme Court. While hearing an application in December 2019, filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj and Commodore Lokesh Batra about the lack of transparency in the appointment process of information commissioners despite an order of the apex court early this year, the Chief Justice stated that the RTI Act has created a sense of 'paralysis and fear' in the government. He also said that government officers are hesitating to take decisions because of this fear. He insisted that the law is being abused and told the activists’ lawyer Prashant Bhushan, that “don’t say as if there is no abuse and…the RTI Act had become a source of criminal intimidation by people with an axe to grind. Criminal intimidation is a nice word for ‘blackmail’.”
Commodore Batra says that, "I humbly plea to the Hon'ble Bench of SC to withdraw their remarks made during hearing held on 16th December.2019, as my dignity and respect in the society has been badly damaged as Transparency Campaigner. I am deeply hurt."
In August 2019, Ajoy Mehta, commissioner of BrihanMumbai Municipal Corp (BMC) was dragged to the Bombay High Court when he made uncharitable remarks about RTI activists. He termed RTI activists as 'professional complainants' and seeking a list of RTI activists who regularly filed applications regarding building violations so that they could be blacklisted. And what provoked him? Well, all because an RTI activist sought information from the BMC or Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) after the horrendous fire tragedy at Kamla Mills compound, which had claimed many innocent lives, who had gone out for dinner in the restaurants of its rooftop.
Former central information commissioner and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi, pained by the remarks of the CJI, feels that, “RTI activists have been persuading the government to put most information on the website as per the mandate of Section 4 of the RTI Act. If governments go completely paperless and digital, it would be easy to put most information on the website. At the very least most of the information and dashboards presently on computers should be available to citizens. This is not being done.”
“Another simple way to stop all blackmailing using RTI information would be to put all RTI applications and responses on the websites in a searchable manner. The department of personnel and training (DoPT) and many state governments have issued instructions for this. But this is not being implemented since this would expose the wrong and illegal actions. Citizens, media and courts should put pressure on the government to implement this properly. Citizens need to get accountability from the government and for this they need to get more information. This is ‘rule of the people, by the people, for the people.’ The citizens fulfill their role as the rulers of the nation by using RTI,” he added.
Not to forget that in the winter session of the Nagpur Assembly in 2018, members across party lines had unanimously supported the contention of Pratap Sarnaik, a Shiv Sena member from Thane that RTI users are blackmailers and action must be taken against them. He claimed that RTI activists have opened ‘corporate offices’ through such extortion. He charged that instead of solving peoples’ problems, helping government officials and exposing corrupt officers, RTI activists indulge in extortion in the name of transparency.
This led to much enthusiasm amongst members of all political parties present in the Assembly with several voicing their experiences of extortion by RTI activists. They said a high percentage of RTI users indulge in blackmail.
Finally, in the Supreme Court, during the hearing of the Rafale deal case, India’s attorney general KK Venugopal had put the Official Secrets Act over and above the RTI Act when in the RTI Act, it is clearly stated that RTI overpowers the Official Secrets Act.
Nevertheless, here is wishing all citizens a pro-active 2020 in using the RTI Act, which is the most empowering tool that is available to them in our democracy which is presently facing a crisis of enormous proportions.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”