“Right to Information Act is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, which can be used to promote transparency and accountability in public offices.”Pranab Mukherjee, Former President of India.
A vital tool for allowing citizens access to information kept by the government is the Right to Information Act (RTI). The legislation was first implemented in India to encourage accountability and openness in governmental processes. The Prime Minister of India at that time, Dr Manmohan Singh brought this landmark legislation which empowered citizens by providing them with the right to question the government and its officials. No longer could the corrupt officials hide under the veil of secrecy and go scot free not being answerable for their controversial actions.
However, in recent years, the Modi administration has come under fire for allegedly undermining the RTI Act and limiting citizens’ access to information. It has been claimed that the Modi administration has gradually eroded the RTI Act over the years. Some of the steps of the government which have led to such allegations are the following:
Right to Information (Amendment) 2019 Act
2019 saw the introduction of modifications to the RTI Act by the Modi government, which have drawn harsh criticism from opposition parties and campaigners. The modifications changed the terms and compensation of information commissioners (ICs), who are in charge of considering public appeals and complaints. The revisions changed the tenure of ICs from five to three years, and they were paid salaries that were equal to or higher than those of bureaucrats. Opponents contend that these modifications will reduce the independence of ICs and deter qualified people from applying for the role.
Delayed IC Appointments
The Modi administration has come under fire for holding off on appointing information commissioners (IC). According to the RTI Act, there should be one Chief Information Commissioner and 10 Information Commissioners on the Central Information Commission (CIC). Nonetheless, the CIC has struggled with a lack of information commissioners for the majority of the Modi administration. Only four information commissioners, including the chief information commissioner, remain in the CIC as of March 2023. The lack of ICs has caused a backlog of cases and slowed down the handling of public complaints.
Limiting the Information’s Scope
The Modi administration has come under fire for allegedly limiting the kind of information that people can obtain under the RTI Act. Public authorities now have the option to reject information requests they perceive to be “frivolous” or “vexatious” thanks to new government regulations. As a result, there are now more RTI applications being turned down. Also, the government has made it more challenging for citizens to acquire information on these agencies by exempting some public entities from the scope of the RTI Act, such as the Prime Minister’s Office.
RTI activists being intimidated
In order to use the RTI Act to keep the government responsible, RTI activists are essential. Yet, there have been a number of incidents of intimidation and violence against RTI activists in recent years. RTI advocates have occasionally faced harassment, threats, or even violence as a result of their efforts to get information under the RTI Act. There is a long list of RTI Activists who were murdered because they dared to question the authorities about the wrongdoings of the corrupt.
Be it Bhola Sah from Bihar, Chirag Patel from Gujarat, Kedar Singh Jindan from Himachal Pradesh or Nanjibhai Sondarva from Gujarat; the list goes on. It is not that the government perpetrated such murders but little has been done to stop such incidents and provide the security needed by the RTI Activists. Such inaction especially where BJP is ruling in both Centre and state has only encouraged those who want the RTI Act to be gone for good.
A chilling effect on the use of the RTI Act, according to critics, has occurred because the government has not done enough to ensure the safety of RTI advocates.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his speech at the 2nd summit of democracy via video conferencing in New Delhi. He said India is the mother of democracy. He went on to say that even in Mahabharata it is mentioned that the first duty of citizens is to choose their leader. However, his government’s apathy towards RTI is only resulting in disempowering of citizens. Democracy will weaken if citizens cannot keep the country’s decision-makers answerable to those who elected them. By letting the RTI Act die, no benefits are being provided to the country. Strong and forceful enforcement of the RTI Act can lead to many positive changes that have occurred in the past.
The Commonwealth Games Scandal: In 2010, India hosted the Commonwealth Games, and charges of fraud and poor management surfaced. A number of inconsistencies were revealed as a result of RTI activists using the Act to get information about the contracts granted for various projects associated with the games. As a result, numerous officials were made to answer for their actions, and significant reforms were started to increase accountability and openness in the management of similar incidents.
The Bihar Mid-Day Meal Scandal: In 2013, more than 20 kids passed away in Bihar as a result of tainted mid-day meals. RTI campaigners used the Act to get details about the food’s quality and the money set up for the mid-day meal programme. As a result, the scheme’s corruption and poor management were exposed, and several officials faced consequences for the affair. In the end, the state’s schoolchildren started receiving food that was of far higher quality.
The MGNREGA Scandal: In 2015, advocates for the right to information (RTI) used the Act to learn more about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) programme. As a result, the scheme’s corruption and poor management were exposed, and several officials faced consequences for the affair. This brought major improvements in the scheme’s implementation and more funding was provided to guarantee the creation of rural employment opportunities. At this time the BJP government was just one year old, still settling in.
Slowly but steadily, the Modi administration’s actions have undermined the RTI Act, a crucial instrument for fostering accountability and openness in governmental operations. The effectiveness of the RTI Act has been weakened by changes to the law, a backlog in IC appointments, and limitations on the types of information that citizens can access. Furthermore, the Act’s usage has become more difficult due to the intimidation of RTI campaigners. The public has to be informed of these problems and it is urged that the government strengthen the RTI Act rather than diminishing it.
If Mr Modi believes in India’s democracy, and if he wants to empower the people, then the RTI Act needs to be brought back to life.
By giving Indian individuals the capacity to demand transparency and accountability from their government, the Right to Information Act of 2005 changed the game in terms of empowering them and bolstering the foundations of democracy.