In order to promote transparency and accountability and in accordance with the provisions of the Right to Information Act 2005, the Telangana government has constituted the State Information Commission and appointed Chief Information Commissioner and an Information Commissioner. This fulfils one of the key constitutional obligations. It is now for the public, in general, and activists, in particular, to make full use of this commission. Unlike many Acts, which derive their strength mainly from the government, the RTI Act’s success depends upon the people and this requires educating them on its usefulness and benefits.
Tracing the Roots
The seeds of this Act were sown when Inder Kumar Gujral was the Prime Minister. The subsequent NDA government enacted the Freedom of Information Act but it did not frame the rules and regulations. As a result, the UPA government under Manmohan Singh implemented the RTI Act on June 21, 2005.
President APJ Abdul Kalam gave his assent on June 15, 2005, but went on record stating that confidentiality of communication between the head of State and head of Government should be maintained. He further emphasised that notings by bureaucrats on files should also be privileged as otherwise, it could adversely affect the decision-making process. He, however, expressed the view that the legislation was an empowering tool and added that, ‘the Right to Information can provide immense relief to people who feel they have been wronged’. An Act of this sort is rarely seen anywhere in the world.
Nine-point Action Plan
The driving force behind the RTI Act was undoubtedly the nine-point Action Plan adopted at the Chief Ministers’ conference chaired by Gujral in May 1997, marking 50 years of independence. The conference observed that even after 50 years of independence, people have growing doubts on State and Central governments. With a view to addressing these concerns and win the trust of the people, an action plan containing the components of Accountability, Transparency and Citizen-friendly government was initiated. Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister, irrespective of party affiliations, agreed upon enacting the Freedom of Information Act.
To make the Act a success, it was resolved that every government department should draft citizen charters and establish public facilitation and information centres. Unfortunately, in most States either all these three or one or more remain only on paper.
The main reason for enacting such a law is that the democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information is vital to its functioning. The key question now is what constitutes information? The answer is simple. Information means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models and data material held by any public authority. Any authority or body or institution of the government, including non-government organisations substantially financed by government, is a public authority and they are expected to maintain all its records.
All this information shall be widely disseminated in public domain and in an easily accessible format. Each public authority shall appoint Public Information Officers (PIO) who are responsible to provide information when a citizen seeks it. In case any citizen does not get a response from the PIO within the prescribed time, s/he has can approach the Information Commission for redressal.
A couple of doubts still haunts the citizens when it comes to the implementation of the Act despite the formation of commissions, including in Telangana. Is it possible for the government to commit to “provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities” as stated in the Act? This is not possible unless each and every government is committed to the Act. Every public authority shall, as per the Act, maintain all its records duly catalogued, indexed, computerised and connected through a network all over the country as well as publish within four months from the enactment of this Act, the particulars of its organisation, functions, powers and duties of its officers and employees besides the procedure followed in the decision-making process. How many have done this?
In addition, they should publish within four months from the enactment of this Act the budget allocated, proposed expenditures, reports on disbursements, manner of execution of subsidy programmes, facilities available to citizens for obtaining information, working hours of a library or reading room and names, designations and other particulars of the PIOs as a single point of contact. It is debatable as to how many adhered to this as of now either in the country or in State.
The Act has not defined the phrase ‘substantially financed’ and as a result NGOs ignored their obligations under the Act. The second Administrative Reforms Commission’s recommendation that organisations that perform functions of a public nature that are ordinarily performed by government or its agencies, and those which enjoy natural monopoly may be brought within the purview of the Act is yet to be implemented.
Any organisation (government or non-government) may take shelter under the clause – There shall be no obligation to give any citizen such information, which is classified as “disclosure of which would prejudicially affect”. Does this provision not amount to limitations?
Some pro-active initiatives will help in better implementation of the Act. These include identification and analysis of citizens information needs; developing active public information tools and techniques like briefings, central information contact, information hotline, simulation games, information centres and field offices, expert panels, field trips, open houses and community fairs.
But most importantly, identification and appointment of persons of eminence in public life, as required in the Act, for the positions of Information Commissioners is the key. Though this is a herculean task, many States, including Telangana, have done it with success.
What citizens want is to treat them with courtesy and respect, make things easy for them, provide reliable and timely help, give them choice and voice and shift from rule-driven procedures to citizen service-driven procedures.
(The author is Chief Public Relations Officer to the Chief Minister of Telangana)