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

Speaker:
Mr. Wajahat Habibullah,
Chief Information Commissioner India

Chair:
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;

This 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 Indian citizen.


Discussion

  1. Should foreign NGOs be given information or not?
  2. When information is provided by the commission contradicts any existing practice or law, what is the recourse to the public?
  3. How does the commission explain the matter of flawed appeals being returned?
  4. The time limit to provide information is not mentioned, explain?
  5. Why is there is a different format for an appeal and a complaint?
  6. Is it possible to obtain third party information?

The Act 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.

 



   
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