Right to Information: Essence of Good Governance
Report of Seminar held at the India Habitat Centre on 10 December 2007
By Rekha Chakravarthi
Research Officer, IPCS
Mr. Wajahat Habibullah,
Chief Information Commissioner India
Mr. D. R. Kaarthikeyan,
President Foundation for Peace, Harmony and Good Governance
Introduction and welcome by Mr. D. R. Kaarthikeyan
The Right to Information Act is considered to be the most revolutionary
of all enactments in Independent India. The right to information and the
assurance of widespread citizen participation in public affairs and an
active civil society are essential for the full realization of democracy.
The Right to Information is the key to democracy and development in,
- Making participatory democracy meaningful
- Cementing trust in government
- Supporting people-centered development
- Facilitating equitable economic growth
- Tackling corruption
Essential features of a Right to Information Legislation
For a Right to Information legislation to be effective the following elements are essential
- It should apply to all organs and instrumentalities
of the state
- Imposition of explicit duty to provide information
- Access to information as a general rule
- Exceptions to be narrow and limited
- Application procedure to be simple and clearly defined
- Time limit for response
- Reasonable fees
- Need for remedy mechanism
- Any law on the Right to Information is of little use unless the
public is made aware of its contents.
- Any Right to Information legislation must necessarily protect whistle
blowers who come out with critical information of public concern that
would not have been otherwise produced on grounds purportedly falling
within the exceptions of the general rule of disclosure.
Mr. Wajahat Habibullah is an outstanding officer of the Indian Administrative Service belonging to Jammu and Kashmir cadre. He has held very important positions both in the Government of India and in the State Government of Jammu and Kashmir. He is the first Chief Information Commissioner of India. I have great pleasure in welcoming him and the audience.
Address by Mr.Wajahat Habibullah
The attempt at complete transparency is at the heart of this
Act. According to Section 2 (f) 'information' means any material in any
form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices,
press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers,
samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information
relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority
under any other law for the time being in force. It is important to understand
this because this is what consummates the idea of being an instrument
of democracy. Democracy is a government of the people, by the people and
for the people, which therefore means public, is government. That being
the case, any activity which is dependent upon public money for its execution
then becomes answerable to the public. It is answerable under Section
7(1) (a). Through this Act, information of the materials available in
the government is available to every citizen of the country.
Section 4, is the essence of this Act because it capitalizes on India's
strength as one of the world's leading powers in software. According to
Section 4(1), every public authority shall "maintain all its records
duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and the form which facilitates
the right to information under this Act and ensure that all records that
are appropriate to be computerized are, within a reasonable time and subject
to availability of resources, computerized and connected through a network
all over the country on different systems so that access to such records
is facilitated." This means complete transparency and hence the need
to fully operationalize this Section.
According to Section 2 (j) 'right to information' means the right to
information accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control
of any public authority and includes the right to:
- Inspection of work, documents, records;
- Taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records;
- Taking certified samples of material;
- Obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes,
video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where
such information is stored in a computer or in any other device;
is a very effective clause because it fits into the scheme of e-governance.
In this regard the computerization of records is what the programme e-governance
envisages. In addition, there is also a scheme to make all the districts
in India e-districts. This would ensure standardization of procedure in
filing applications, the way they are processed, and the way in which
responses are given. Then there is this question of connecting it down
to the village level. Until now the main users of this Act have been people
in the urban centres. They are not the essential target of this Act. The
targets of this Act are the rural folk, slum dwellers, the aam aadmi (common
folk). So it is necessary to connect this into the Panchayat system. Over
the counter services, certificates, ration cards, taxation, billing, licenses
etc are the areas of primary concern to the common folk. These are the
kind of applications that the commission has been receiving from the slum
dwellers etc since they have not been easily available to them.
In conclusion, this Act will work if the ultimate objective of the Act
becomes completely transparent and the instrument of how to make it completely
transparent is also borne inside the Act. This is because the awareness
of the Act is largely in the urban centres. Therefore, unless the rural
areas begin to make widespread use of this Act, unless our present systems
are not reformed and unless the operationalization of Section 4 is not
brought about, this Act will not work. Nevertheless, with regard to providing
timely information and also facilitating the village Panchayats and people
to access information, the government is working on a scheme of bringing
e-administration to the district level. The Department of Information
Technology is working towards setting up common service centers in every
district in the country and a part of the work of the common service centre
will be to allow the people of those districts to access information through
internet. There will be many challenges to this; however, the objective
has been clearly set and therefore we should look forward to a future
in which we can make democracy real not only for ourselves but for every
- Should foreign NGOs be given information or not?
- When information is provided by the commission contradicts any existing practice or law, what is the recourse to the public?
- How does the commission explain the matter of flawed appeals being returned?
- The time limit to provide information is not mentioned, explain?
- Why is there is a different format for an appeal and a complaint?
- Is it possible to obtain third party information?
is very clear. It applies only to Indian citizens and foreign NGOs are
not necessarily Indian citizens but if there are Indian citizens who are
members of foreign NGOs then as Indian citizens they can ask for information.
Therefore, it does not matter if a person belongs to a foreign NGO or
an Indian NGO, so long as the person is an Indian citizen, information
will be provided.
Under Section 4(1) (b) and particularly 4(1) (c), the department is expected
to publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or
announcing the decisions which affect public and also provide reasons
for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to affected persons.
This is a means of encouraging public participation in governance which
is in fact the essence of democracy. If the public is running the government
then it is entitled to know why a particular administrative decision has
been taken and why a particular policy has been formulated. Likewise when
a defective policy decision or administrative decision has been taken
by a particular department, then that department becomes answerable.
Regarding time spent in appeals and complaints submitted to the Commissio,
initially the staffing of the commission that processed the applications
was highly inadequate and the processing of the application itself took
three to four months, which has been remedied now. The whole processing
period does not take more than a week. But there is an unacceptably high
timec lag between receipt and disposal of appeals and complaints before
the Commission. WE are working to remedy this.
The authority, and not the Act, is responsible to mention if information
will be provided within so many working days. It does not require any
amendment in the Act for this particular purpose because each case will
be different. A general rule cannot be laid down in case information is
not provided within a week or ten days because it then depends on the
kind of information that is required.
There is a format only for an appeal, a complaint cannot have a format
because one can complain on any subject therefore one does not have to
adhere to any format complaining, however, it is imperative to be clear
as to what the complaint is about.
Third party information has been defined in the Act. If a third party
is involved and that third party has provided information, and then it
is held in confidence, the department has to refer to the third party
if the information has to be disclosed. However, under the RTI Act a person
can request for any information unless it is excluded for national security
reasons or any other reasons specified under Section 8.