The Right to Information Act has been among the notable laws passed by the UPA government. This landmark legislation allows every citizen of this country to ask for and get details of any publicly funded institution, scheme or project. It has been routinely reported that the mere mention of invoking this Act puts fear into the hearts of government officials, who now think twice before resorting to malpractices or denying citizens their due services.
It is no exaggeration to say that this single piece of legislation has changed the realities of governance considerably. Citizens from all walks of life have applied for and obtained information under this law. A few very good examples of this have been profiled in this publication itself (e.g. see here). Previously, a lot of this information was extremely difficult to come by, because officials did their best to withhold it. One can see why; now, with more information about governance publicly available, there have been several disclosures and indictments of corrupt officials. And this trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future at least, despite attempts by some state governments to dilute the law in practice.
However, like many other laws, this one too suffers from some lacunae. In its present form, the law requires citizens to physically go to government offices to fill out and submit their RTI applications, and this clearly limits its potential. Also, the law in its present form does not have adequate provisions on anonymity for the applicant. Therefore,in quite a few cases, the fear that the government official against whom the application is filed will find out who the applicant is has deterred people from accessing this law. Once these issues are addressed, the use of the law is likely to further increase, and even more skeletons from government closets are bound to tumble out.
While we look forward to that day, we must also contend with a growing risk that is becoming increasingly evident. The present system of administering the RTI law includes one odd fact: a government servant, who is unlikely to be penalised for non-performance of his primary duty, can be held to account for non-compliance under this law, and even fined out of his own pocket for this. This has led to a situation where government officials sometimes place greater importance to RTI applications than to their primary duties, because they do not want to be pulled up or penalised for failing to look into an RTI application.
If RTI applications continue to rise in number, it will not be too long before the system as we know collapses and will have to be overhauled. That would be risky, because some of the good features of the law could be diluted during such an over-haul. It would be prudent, therefore, to pre-empt this now, in the interest of preserving the gains the law has given us so far.
Any move by government departments to voluntarily disclose more of their work will in fact save both time and money, and usher in increased transparency. And since most departments have already instituted some level of digitisation - and others are following in this course - it will take them little or no extra effort to put information on the Internet, that can then be accessed by citizens in their homes and offices, and even at Internet kiosks. The Indian government is also in the process of introducing 100,000 Common Service Centres and whether the government may understand it or not, this is a huge step towards wide-spread Internet accessibility, and will take us some distance towards implementing 'Internet for all'. It requires no second guesses that these Internet centres will be spaces where the right to information in its new digital avatar would be operative.
Given all this, it would be very foolish for any government department or agency to refuse such a request, since it would be a logical extension of its work and could be carried out without causing strain on resources.
As more and more information gets digitised and put on the Net, citizens are likely to access the CSCs in greater numbers, and use this information to question and reform governance systems. It would also give tele-centres more credibility, as the sheer number of people (in total numbers and percentage) who would access these spaces would go up exponentially. This symbiotic relationship between the Right to information movement and the 'Right to Internet' embodied through the Common Service Centres is likely to reinforce and strengthen each other.
A kind of censorship
This leads to the question: Should the governments' lack of interest in making suo motu disclosures be regarded as a kind of Internet censorship? The short answer is 'yes'. We are familiar with one understanding of censorship: namely, the non-presentation of material that has been found to be objectionable, especially in the performing and popular arts. But censorship comes in other forms too. Indeed, non-production of information is even more pernicious that mere concealment, and we should be as alert to this kind of censorship as the more familiar type.
Access to information and the knowledge derived from it forms the basis for power relations in society, and for discrimination. However, once information that is meant to be on the public domain is out there and can be seen and accessed by all, hopefully issues of power and discrimination can be addressed. There is no guarantee of this, of course, but it is certain that without high and broad standards for public disclosure, too much of government will remain locked up in the embrace of vested, influential groups alone. On the other hand, as history has shown, once citizens know what is due to them, and a fair means of making this available is known, they will settle for nothing less. And that's the way it should be.