RTI: A statute inviting attacks on activists
By: Muzaffar Razak and Basit Farooq
“Where a society has chosen to accept democracy as its creedal faith, it is elementary that the citizens ought to know what their government is doing.” Justice PN Bhagwati
Information is the oxygen for a citizen living in a society and it leads to transparency and accountability in administration which in turn is sine quo non tool for participatory democracy. India as a largest democracy has been able to recognize this right and pass an effective legislation for the purpose of providing information to the people, with respect to the records and details available with the public bodies in the form of Right to Information Act, 2005. There is a general assumption that the laws for public benefit are ironically utilized by the elite sections for their own benefit. However, the right to know acts is an important tool for the people to know about the policies framed and their outcome from common peoples’ point of view.
The importance of the right lies in the fact that it was recognized by the Supreme Court of India for the first time in Bennett Coleman v Union of India (AIR 1973) SC 106 and “retreated that freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) included Right to Information.”
The element and veil of secrecy in the administration leads to corruption which ultimately kills the social fabric of the country and its otherwise enormous institutions. Good governance requires four basic elements; Transparency, Accountability, Predictability and Participation. All these elements refer to the availability of the information to general public and clarity about functioning of the government institutions. Right to information helps in fulfilling these objectives, as has been stated by Justice Mathew in State of UP VS Raj Narian(AIR 1975) SCC0428 SC “It is not in the interest of the public to cover with a veil of secrecy the common routine business, the responsibility of officials to explain and to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against the oppression and corruption”.
The Right to Information Act in India has though helped achieve many objectives, but there are many defects and the threats to the RTI activists aren’t addressed within the statute. The major lacuna is that the activists who risk their lives for public good aren’t given protection because there is no provision in the Act which would provide for a remedy to these aggrieved activists or at least the complaints of these activists would be heard. The activists suffer from continuous harassment, coercions and threats and this can be understood from the fact that more than 84 RTI activists have been killed since 2014 alone including killing of famous activist M S Shehla Masood and Mumbai based activist Satish Shetty. The attacks on these activists has been a punishment for seeking truth, and sadly no successful investigation takes place into these incidents. Similarly, one of the writers of this write-up, Muzaffar Razak was thrown out of hostel by Kashmir University by the authorities apparently as personal vengeance on the ground that he had sought information about the funds in the hostel.
This necessitates the need of bringing an amendment to the said Act which shall include a provision as a protective mechanism for the safety and resolution of the grievances of the activists.
There is a general assumption that government can never let its loopholes be highlighted and its officials, who are motivated politically to take steps while abusing power, be caught in embezzlement and other similar crimes publicly. This therefore explains clearly as to why there is no protection provided to RTI activists within the statute.
The disposal rate of the RTI is very low and this defeats the basic objective of the Act. Jammu and Kashmir after abrogation of Article 370 obviously has no State Information Commission (SIC) and thereby the appeals after First Appellate Authority go directly to Central Information Commission (CIC) and all pending cases before the State Information Commission got transferred to CIC. The workload on Central Information Commission is already very huge and there is no speedy hearing of the cases. The matter on which RTI is filed must be resolved early, for otherwise, there is every possibility of the cause becoming remote due to the inaction taken by the Information Commission.
One such pending case (originally filed on 05/11/2018) before the State Information Commission prior to the abrogation was Muzaffar Razak vs University of Kashmir vide case number SIC/K/SA/114/2019 and was subsequently transferred to CIC after dissolution of SIC. The mater is still pending in CIC vide case number CIC/UTOJK/A/2020/115050 and when the applicant after almost a span of one year of abrogation tried to get the status of the case in CIC, the response was very disappointing suggesting that the case would be listed for hearing after about a year. The case has already taken a span of 3 years and till the hearing in CIC, the merits of the case will get defeated bringing no justice to the matter and only mental agony to the applicant.
The case would have been resolved early had public authority given full information about the contents, but the behaviour of the officials has always been non-cooperative in this regard and perhaps because of the lenient punishment for non disclosure. The penalty for non-disclosure of information attracts punishment only by way of fine, however there shall be more strict punishment for the officials who deny information so as to ensure the proper implementation of the Act.
The important reason for delay in cases inter alia is the Public Information Officer (PIO) and the First Appellate Authority of the public bodies responsible for providing information often turns out to be the person against whom information is sought and in such a situation, the matter becomes complex, if any fraud with funds is done within the body. There must be an independent person within the body who shall provide information to the applicants. Also, the official’s aren’t aware of the statutory obligations and deny providing the relevant information. There must be awareness about the same either during service training or even during employment.
The statute though acts as an important tool for transparency in governance, the veil of secrecy won’t lift until the important amendments are brought within the statute and the atmosphere for efficient working of the Act is ensured.