The much touted - and even heralded - national Right to Information Act came into force on 12 October. It is being implemented both at the Central level for access to records of departments and agencies under control of the Union government, and also independently by the State governments for their own departments and agencies. Not surprisingly, bureaucracies across the nation are ushering in the new law in a manner that can only be termed as 'unwilling'.
A range of deliverables needed to be in place as the new law came into effect, from notification of lucid usage rules, to appointments of public officials to handle applications and appeals as well as the constitution and appointments to the State and Central Information Commissions. In all of this, there is now confusion and worry that delays and obfuscation of citizen requests will occur during the early days of usage.
Not to be daunted, citizens groups nationwide from Karnataka to Delhi -- have virtually been on alert and awaiting the opening of government departments to applications for information. The nationwide RTI users e-group Hum Janenge, which is used as a watering hole by activists, interested citizens and journalists alike has been abuzz with news reports as well as queries, surmises and expectation. The wait itself has now ended.
The Central government issued its rules for applications and fees under the new regime in mid-September. Under these rules, citizens will have to pay Rs 10 as application fee, Rs 2 per page of A4/A3 size paper on which copies of information are received, and Rs 50 per floppy diskette. Inspection of records for the first hour is free, but citizens will have to pay Rs.5 for every 15 minutes of subsequent time. The Central rules notification has also been followed by several State governments with their own rules on fees and costs, with many states making fee schedules similar to the Centres.
Interest among the media and citizens nationwide is currently at a peak. But even here, it isn't surprising that citizens in Maharashtra, Delhi and Karnataka are particularly eager to get on with the process of using the new law and learn of its early fate. As India Together readers will know, a small but forceful number citizens in these states had already been active in exerting much pressure and received some success in accessing government records using the older state level right to information laws. By most accounts, these states are also likely to see much early action. But clearly, a number of other states hitherto not on the sunshine map in theory or practice are falling in line. Orissa, Tamilnadu, and Madhya Pradesh -- to name some - have also taken their first steps to implement the law, riddled as their steps have nevertheless been with confusion and delays regarding appointments, rules and information commissions.
What is worrying many is the haphazard manner in which the State and Central governments are dealing with appointments to various public positions for administration of this law. It is undisputed that the appointments of officials who the officials are, how many of these positions are created per department, and where they are located within various departments are all going to be critical to the making the sunshine law work for the people. These new positions range from the entry level public information officers who are the first point of contact citizens filing applications, all the way upto the chief information commissioners at the state level and likewise at the central level.
The concern starts with the nature of the recent spate of appointments to the top level positions of the Central Information Commission itself, as well as to the State Information Commissions. Dr Wajahat Habibullah has just taken charge as India's Chief Information Commissioner. He retired very recently as Secretary to the Government of India at the Ministry of Panchyati Raj. Dr Habibullah appears to be progressive minded enough to write an article recently in the Financial Express on citizens using power to effect change. "The Right to Information Act of 2005 will guarantee the other essential elements of good governance: transparency and accountability", he wrote. In Karnataka, the former Chief Secretary K K Misra took charge as the State Information Commissioner. In Maharashtra, a current civil servant, Dr Suresh Joshi, Metropolitan Commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) is slated to take over as Information Commissioner.
With virtually all IC positions being given to former bureaucrats, the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information has sounded an alarm on the dangers of extending a bureaucratic culture and legacy into the very offices that hold primary charge of overseeing enforcement. The NCPRI has been instrumental in much of the early work that went into this legislation which was shepherded at the National Advisory Council in 2004 by Aruna Roy. NCPRI also notes that the appointment of the former Karnataka Chief Secretary had provoked protests because the Karnataka High Court had passed strictures against Misra for concealing information from the Court.
The new law specifies that "The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance." None of this seems to matter to the heads of our governments. The credibility of the government is likely to suffer serious damage if appointments of "independent" ICs are largely restricted to serving or retired bureaucrats, say Shekhar Singh and Aruna Roy.
The law has now come into force, in the broad light of media attention and some early filings. One thing seems certain. As was the case when the state laws were used, the new national law will also see most of the serious work of operationalisation and implementation only henceforth, and with citizen pressure. How much light is shed on the workings of government by the new law will only become known in the months ahead.