Freedom Still Eludes the Common Citizen on this 73rd Independence Day of India
Early this year, a group of eminent citizens under the chairmanship of eminent legal luminary, Justice AP Shah, brought out a document titled “Reclaiming the Republic” which analyses and puts forth issues that are of deep concern to people and asks to protect and strengthen the Constitutional safeguards for India’s democratic polity. The issues addressed are relevant and every citizen can identify with them. Hence, capturing the essence of their work, on the eve of the Independence Day tomorrow is important.
 
For chalking out the components required for effective public accountability and proactive public participation, the following issues have been identified:
 
  • A strong right to information (RTI) regime which citizens able to access relevant information;

 

 

  • Prevention of Corruption Act, which comprehensively defines corruption and provides an independent mechanism for investigation and prosecution in cases of corruption;

 

  • Independent and empowered anticorruption ombudsman - Lokpal and Lokayuktas; 

 

  • An effective whistleblower protection law;

 

  • A statutory mechanism which guarantees people the right to time-bound redress of grievances in a decentralised manner; 

 

  • A legal framework for pre-legislative consultation that gives citizens the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process of making laws and policies that affect them;

 

  • A statutory framework to empower citizens to monitor and undertake social audits of government programmes. While, in some cases, enactment of appropriate laws is required, in others where relevant laws already exist, specific measures to ensure proper implementation are needed.
 
The range of reforms that have been proposed include:
 
• Doing away with several antiquated and draconian laws which have been widely misused to curtail personal liberties and intimidate political activists;
 
• Reforms to repair the damage done to anti-corruption institutions and putting in place a functional law and institutions to deal with public grievances;
 
• Judicial reforms aimed at making the judiciary more independent, accessible, efficient and accountable. Because: The judiciary today is not accessible to a majority of the people who cannot afford lawyers. It is virtually dysfunctional as cases take decades to be decided. There are serious concerns about the quality of judgements and corruption in the judiciary. It, therefore, needs comprehensive reforms. To begin with, informal courts envisaged as Gram Nyayalayas are needed, which can function without lawyers and where normal disputes of common people can be decided quickly. The procedures of the courts need to be simplified and made much less formal. The number of judges needs to be increased and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods, particularly conciliation, need to be used in a more professional manner.
 
• Reforming the implementation of law through a set of police reforms in accordance with the Supreme Court’s judgement;
 
• Electoral reforms aimed at reducing the influence of money power in elections and making the electoral system more democratic. Because: A system of free and fair elections, in a minimum sense of the term, has been a noteworthy achievement of Indian democracy. Yet, the mechanism of political representation does not encourage or provide meaningful and substantive choices to the citizens. Asymmetry of information and money ensures that there is no level playing field for political competition. Wide ranging electoral reforms, along with reform of political institutions, are needed.
 
• Media reforms aimed at making the media freer, more diverse and accountable through an independent regulator; Because: Certain draconian legislations such as sedition, blasphemy and censorship laws are often invoked by State agencies in a bid to curb media freedom and free speech. Further, in the past two to three years, there has been an increasing use of strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) by corporates to intimidate and silence media initiatives, especially investigative journalism, by burdening them with the cost of protracted legal battles and threat of huge payouts.
 
There is no institutional framework for accountability of the media and licensing powers vest exclusively with the government, thereby allowing it to wield influence over the media. The public broadcaster is also under the control of the government, thereby thwarting any meaningful, independent reportage.
 
• Health reforms to ensure that the public health delivery system is put in place across the country and healthcare is affordable and accessible to all;
 
• Educational reforms to ensure properly staffed and funded government schools and better endowed, oriented and regulated higher educational institutions;
 
• Agricultural reforms to ensure that farmers receive remunerative prices for their produce, are freed from indebtedness and that we move towards more healthy and sustainable farm practices;
 
• Environmental reforms to ensure that environmental costs and benefits of every developmental project is examined by proper, independent regulatory bodies, especially if it involves the destruction of forests, coasts and other eco sensitive zones. Because: Articles 48A and 51A of the Indian Constitution require the State and the citizens, respectively to protect the environment. The States and Union governments have neither shown the requisite political will nor have they empowered citizens and communities to fulfil their Constitutional duty to protect the environment.
 
• Policies and programmes to ensure health, education, employment and social security to especially disadvantaged groups such as the disabled, SC/STs, women, Muslims, etc. Because: The implementation of criminal law by a police controlled by the executive has led to widespread misuse by the government in power. This was sought to be remedied by the Supreme Court in the police reforms judgement, which unfortunately remain unimplemented. The Parliament and States must pass Police Acts in accordance with that judgement and also provide for a 33% reservation for women in the police force.
 
• Extension and expansion of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) to guarantee to every adult at least 150 days of work a year at minimum wages; and
 
• Universal basic services for all citizens, including universal pension for the aged and special provisions for specially disadvantaged groups.
 
• Enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law and establishing independent commissions for looking into systemic injustice meted out to vulnerable groups.
 
States RTI Activist Anjali Bharadwaj, a member of this eminent citizen panel, "These proposed policies and programmes are neither optional, nor unaffordable for an economy of our size. We have examined the financial costs involved in providing for such welfare measures and are of the opinion that additional costs involved can be mobilised with the help of a small turnover tax, wealth tax and inheritance tax, besides doing away with many irrational corporate subsidies. A substantial part of this additional spending is likely to come back to the government as indirect tax revenue.’’
 
List of members of `Reclaiming the Republic’ initiative include Justice AP Shah (chairperson) Prashant Bhushan (convenor), Anjali Bhardwaj (convenor), Aakar Patel, Aruna Roy, Bezwada Wilson, Deepak Nayyar, EAS Sarma, Gopal Guru, Gopal Gandhi, Harsh Mander, Jayati Ghosh, Kavitha Kuruganti, Krishna Kumar, Nikhil Dey, Paul Divakar, Prabhat Patnaik, P Sainath, Ravi Chopra, SP Shukla, Srinath Reddy, Sujatha Rao, Sakthi Selvaraj, Syeda Hameed, Vipul Mudgal, Wajahat Habibullah and Yogendra Yadav.
 
The entire booklet can be accessed here:
 
 
(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”.)
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    COMMENTS

    raj lee

    1 week ago

    If this happens then 10 or 20 trillion possible. Now india is 200% currupt and they are busy with hindi language, religion, lowering intrest rates. Helping corporates to play with indians poor.

    shadi katyal

    1 week ago

    It is nice to read such report and recommendations but to whom is it addressed, Not to present Govt which quietly and with sleigh of hand had destroyed the word Secular and now Democracy. RTI has been amended and though SC order to be open to public,no such facility is available.
    The word corruption is equaled with money and bribery but look around and tell us where is any accountability or even transparency.
    Voters are not empowered as they are led like sheep to slaughter house to vote for even criminals with record or cases pending for murder,kidnap,rape etc as such goons are given the tickets by the party.Look at number of such MP increase in this election. Judiciary was weak but never sold its conscious to ruling party. Almost all the cases are either withdrawn or accused let free.
    I doubt if Constitution,if it is still there in next few years, will empower voters to elect their own representatives as we don't have democracy but partycracy and which party will give up such power
    The Election Commission is another useless agency and sold out to the ruling party as we saw in this election. Why has EC allowed people with criminal records and cases pending to run for election.
    Democracy as we know now in India is a joke .

    As UT, J&K Now Falls under Central RTI Act 2005, but Problems Remain 
    The (Central) RTI Act, 2005 applies to the Union Government of India and all of its states and Union Territories. The state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), having been accorded special status under Article 370, had the option of voting through its own Legislative Assembly to adopt the Act or simply to ignore it altogether. J&K chose to finally implement the RTI Act 2009, which is close on the lines of the Central RTI Act 2009, after immense citizen campaign. Until then, the J&K state RTI Act 2004 and J&K RTI (Amendment) Act, 2008, were in use. Now that both Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh are legally Union Territories (UTs), they would have to come under the Central RTI Act 2005.
     
    To reorganise the state of J&K and Ladakh, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha passed the J&K Reorganisation Bill 2019 last week. Its Section 95 states that all Central laws in Table -1 of the Fifth Schedule to this Act, on and from the appointed day, shall apply to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and also the Union Territory of Ladakh. The Schedule lists 106 Central laws and the RTI Act is one of them.
     
    So, what would be the repercussions?  A Union Territory has no right to appoint information commissioners, so the J&K state information commission will be automatically abolished.  RTI applicants of J&K will soon have to file their second appeals to one of the Central information commissioners in Delhi. Hence, there could be longer pendencies of second appeals. The J&K state RTI Act 2009 had specific deadlines for information commissioners to dispose of second appeals, which is absent from the Centre’s RTI Act 2005.
     
    States Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar of RTI and programme coordinator of The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), “Now people in J&K and Ladakh will have to wait for a long time for their appeals to be decided as the Central law does not fix a time limit for the CIC. Under the state law, the state information commission was required to decide appeals within 60-120 days. The caseload at CIC will also increase manifold, thanks to these changes. Unless concrete steps are taken to address these challenges, the waiting period for appeals and complaints in the CIC may increase beyond the minimum of one year that is currently being experienced by appellants and complainants.’’
     
    Mr Nayak further states, “Further, the Central Act, unlike the state Act does not contain any provision for the first appellate authority to make a reference against an errant PIO to the information commission to impose a penalty. This is another negative impact of the changes being contemplated. Departmental control over PIOs will be reduced further. In fact, the Central RTI Act must include such a positive provision.’’
     
    On the other side, so far, only the residents of Jammu & Kashmir could file RTI applications; now any citizen from any part of the country can file an RTI application to any public authority of Jammu & Kashmir Union Territories.
     
    In the past three years, the J&K state information commission has not filed its annual report; hence there is no clarity on the number of pending second appeals. It is estimated at 400 pendencies, but what will happen to these in terms of time for their disposals and which Central information commissioner would be looking into them?
     
    Since RTI activists in J&K are uncontactable, it was not possible to get their views.
     
    (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”.)
     
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    P M Ravindran

    2 weeks ago

    Glad to know that the JK RTI Act had these two good provisions-for 1st appellate authorities to make reference to the information commissioners to penalise the defaulting PIOs and also specifying time limits for information commissioners to dispose of the cases. The first appellate authorities are practically redundant as far as the central act is concerned. Because they do not have powers to punish the PIOs they are normally seen taking the short cut by supporting the PIOs. And the information commissioners are also indifferent to recommend administrative action against defaulting first appellate authorities. Anyhow the whole process of handling complaints and appeals by the information commissions have to be revised to make then transparent, fair and effective. For details please go through my blog at https://www.scribd.com/document/344242826/Rti-rules-2017-Redrafted-by-Rti-Activist

    ‘Use RTI to save RTI’ movement begins Across the Country as President Kovind Gives Assent to the RTI Amendment Bill
    That, President Ram Nath Kovind was to sign the Right to Information (RTI) Amendment 2019 Bill sent to him for assent manifested in the police action on Thursday, when people, who had gone to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, to petition the President to ask him to withhold his assent, were detained. So, not surprisingly, President Kovind, who despite being part of the committee, which recommended it is of utmost importance to have autonomy for the post of information commissions, gave in to the anti-people amendments that was recently passed by both the houses of Parliaments.
     
    A press release issued by National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) says, “As people were reaching the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the police turned up in large numbers and detained all those who were present and took them in buses to Mandir Marg Police Station. None of the people who had gathered there were allowed to submit their petitions at the Rashtrapati Bhawan secretariat.
     
    The police detained 66 people and many others were not allowed to reach the Rashtrapati Bhawan and were turned away. Later the police allowed only three people to enter and deliver some of the petitions. Subsequently, the others were allowed to leave.
     
    We term the detention and police preventing people from giving their petitions to the President as a serious attack on free speech and democracy.”
     
    “It is indeed a Black Day for our democracy as the RTI Act which was implemented in 2005 after several years of peoples’ movement, has been stymied. Now, the only hope is to file petitions in different High Courts and Supreme Court, which activists, across the country, will decide by the weekend.”
     
    In the meanwhile, NCPRI co-convenors Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey and former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah who addressed a press conference to launch the `Use RTI to Save RTI campaign’ are urging people across the country to file RTI applications in large numbers. 
     
    They state, “under the `Use RTI to Save RTI’ campaign on the 1st of every month RTI applications will be filed across the country in conjunction with social movements and peoples’ groups to seek information on key issues of public interest. On the 1st of August, nearly 100 questions through RTI applications have been filed seeking information on issues ranging from social security, defence procurement including Rafael aircrafts, land acquisitions, ration, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Unnao rape case, functioning of the Lokpal, functioning of hospitals, deployment of teachers and many more.’’ 
     
    RTI applications that have been prepared and filed can be accessed at from this link https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Jypwzj7oMAzcg9QdGOIQhW217BxK79_1/view?usp=drivesdk
     
    The ‘Use RTI to Save RTI’ campaign was launched in multiple states on Friday – Odisha, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Kerala. It will be taken up in other states in the coming days. RTI applications will be filed on the 1st of every month and a portal where all the RTI applications and replies will be uploaded is being developed on righttoinformation.info where details of the campaign are also available, says Ms Bharadwaj. For any further queries, you may contact 9650346518, 9810273984, 9818838588.
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    P M Ravindran

    3 weeks ago

    '....Wajahat Habibullah who addressed a press conference to launch the `Use RTI to Save RTI campaign’'- must be the joke of the millennium. Please refer my blog http://raviforjustice.blogspot.com/2012/01/rti-old-application-to-president-to.html. It is my petition to the then President to remove Wajahat Habibulla, the first Chief Information Commissioners of Central Information Commission, for his stupid decisions. Yes, I had also petitioned the Governor of Kerala to remove all the information commissioners of Kerala SIC also. This petition is available at http://www.slideshare.net/raviforjustice/rti-compker-govksic071107to-remove-i-cs and another one at http://www.slideshare.net/raviforjustice/rti-compker-govksic040108.

    Sudhir P Badami

    3 weeks ago

    I am glad this has been suggested by eminent RTI campaigners. I am in the process of writing on the subject and have suggested this.

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