RTI Activism In India And The Way Forward

RTI Activism in India and the Way Forward

“Information is a basic human right and the fundamental foundation for the formation of democratic institutions”-Nelson Mandela

Abstract

Information is the basic knowledge about any topic. Everyone has a right to know about the government proceeding, Is the government following proper procedures or not. Hence Right to information is the fundamental right to maintain transparency and accountability. However, those who try to bring this information out are brutally beaten because they are bringing out the black hiding behind the white faces. There is a need to protect these RTI activists. Several attempts by the Central government try to protect these activists. One of the biggest solutions is User anonymity. When the details of the person who has filed the RTI application are not known, then there will be no chance of attacks. There is a huge scope for this right if it is used judiciously.

 Introduction

On 28 August 2022, Santosh Mohanty, an RTI activist in Odisha was brutally beaten and left in front of his house. The reason for this heinous activity was that he had raised his voice against the corruption going on in Mahatma Gandhi’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Being one of the latest instances of violence against RTI activists, it questions the state and fate of RTI activists in India. According to the report of the Commonwealth Human Right Initiative named “Hall of Shame”, 84 RTI activists have lost their lives since the right to Information Act was enacted in 2005. Among these, 7 were suicides and 77 were brutal murders. Since 2005, 169 activists were harassed and 183 have been attacked.

 Right To  Information Act 2005

The Right To Information Act, 2005 replaced the Freedom Of Information Act, 2002. The main objective of this act is to ensure transparency and accountability in the working of government officials and policy-making processes. This act provides a Right to the citizens to ask public authorities about their work undertaken and the developments made amongst several other provisions. To make this more feasible, the Right to Information (Amendment) Act was introduced in 2019. 

One of the main criticism that the act has faced is that some authorities do not fall under the ambit of public authorities. According to the Act, citizens can seek information only from the public authorities. Many authorities do not fall under the ambit of public authority hence citizens cannot seek information from them. PM CARES FUND is one such example. The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) is a public charitable trust established in India in March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund is intended to provide assistance to individuals and families affected by the pandemic and to support the government’s efforts to combat the outbreak. The fund is managed by a board of trustees, headed by the Prime Minister of India, and includes the Defence Minister, Home Minister, and Finance Minister. The fund is open to public contributions, and donations are eligible for tax benefits under the Indian Income Tax Act.

The Union government and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) have clarified to the Delhi High Court that the PM CARES Fund cannot be considered a “public authority” under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and cannot be listed as a “State.” In an affidavit to the court, the government stated that the fund was established as a public charitable trust and not established by the Constitution of India or any law passed by the Parliament or state legislature. Furthermore, the PMO stated that the PM CARES Fund is not owned, controlled, or financed by the Union government, state government, or any instrumentality of government. However, PM CARES FUND is a registered body whereas “‘Prime Minister National Relief Fund”’ (PMNRF) created by “Jawarharlal Nehru”, which was also established along similar lines for relief, with public contributions to assist displaced persons from Pakistan, was never registered. Additionally, there were only two personnel for the management of funds- the Prime Minister itself and the President of the Congress party, therefore lacking transparency when compared with PM CARES Fund.

Other shortcomings of this act are poor record management practices, misuse of RTI, low public awareness, delay in the disposal of appeals and complaints, huge Backlogs, and poor quality of the information provided.

Whistleblower Protection Act- A necessary armour for RTI

A whistleblower is a person who releases information about the wrongdoing of any government or public official or discloses some corruption on the part of the public office holder to the public. He may be a person who is a part of a government functionary. 

Whistleblower protection is the ultimate line of defence for safeguarding the public interest. Whistleblowers are one of the strongest resources for identifying criminal activity, yet they frequently face attacks and harassment for their activities. One of the major setbacks to RTI activism in India is that there is no protection available for those trying to counter corruption by taking on influential officials and politicians. Satyendra Dubey of the National Highways Authority of India and Manjunath Shanmugham of the Indian Oil Corporation were killed because they too had stood up against corruption which was going on in the project as there was misappropriation of funds in the project. Concern for the growing incidents of murders, assault, torture, and harassment of whistle-blowers and RTI activists led to the enactment of the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2014. 

The Whistleblower Protection Act (WBP Act) provides protection of identity for whistleblowers and safeguards against their victimisation. Despite assurances, the government has taken no steps to prevent the deaths of whistleblowers by operationalizing this law. Whistleblowers Protection (Amendment), Bill, 2015, passed by the Lok Sabha also renewed concerns regarding the vulnerability of information seekers making disclosures in the public interest. 

 Condition of RTI Activists in India

The RTI has been an instrument in bringing transparency and curbing corruption, thereby enhancing democracy at various levels. Democracy is understood as ‘a rule by the people’. Therefore, democratic governance should welcome and encourage the subjects to question and gather information regarding the directions, developments, schemes, and all sorts of works undertaken by the concerned authorities. But unless there is a way to protect the activists, the purpose behind the enactment of an act like ‘Right to Information’ stands defeated. These deaths and assaults are a manifestation of a larger trend in India which perceives the rule of law as being undercut, the democratic space as being reduced, and intolerance on the rise. RTI advocates are increasingly exposed to threats, intimidation, and other forms of intimidation due to the pervasive culture of impunity. 

According to the ‘National Campaign For People’s Right To Information and Commonwealth Human Right Initiative’, Maharashtra has recorded the highest number of deaths of RTI activists followed by Gujarat. The data of the user filing the complaint is available to everyone, becoming one of the major causes of attacks on RTI activists. Since the government has not instituted substantial safeguards ensuring the safety and liberty of these activists, there is limited recourse to justice.

 False Activism

However, the issue of frivolous RTI applications has also become a major concern. Frivolous RTI applications threaten activism by painting a blot on the ‘activist community’, and mocking the mechanism which was initiated for transparency. In 2021-22, Eighteen lahks   RTI applications were filed. There have been attempts to tackle this issue by blacklisting people who file RTI applications for vested and vexatious interests. However, the attempts have received a backlash citing ‘arbitrariness’ and a threat to ‘freedom of speech’. While such applications are still being filed, one of the main reasons for such a demeanour is the over-glorification by the media which further encourages such filings. A recent study found that frivolous applications account for 0.6% of the total applications. Some of these RTIs are also politically motivated. Several applications are filed just to meddle with the working of authorities and agencies for vexatious reasons.Despite many amendments in the act, no reduction in attacks on RTI activists is seen

Way Forward/Suggestions

USERS’ ANONYMITYMaintaining the anonymity of RTI applicants is one solution that would hopefully, reduce this issue to a significant extent. An applicant requesting information should not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him. Users’ anonymity will ensure that the information of the person filing the complaint is not disclosed  so that no one gets to know the identity of the user and in this way decreases the chances of attack and violence. The authority should not insist upon the detailed address of the applicant as and when an application is made under the Right to Information Act. 

According to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, which is analogous to India’s RTI Act,  applicants’ names are always blanked out even in communications between government departments and in public uploads of responses to queries. Along similar lines, the Calcutta High Court has suggested that RTI applicants need not disclose any personal details, other than, say, a post office box number, or an anonymous email id, as a point of contact. However, the suggestion was not binding. 

ANTI-CORRUPTION AWARD:The Government of the USA provides an anti-corruption award to the activists that motivate these activists to continue their work. In the USA, this right to Information is protected under the Freedom Of Information Act. Such measures must also be taken by the Indian government or CIC should institute similar awards for encouraging and spreading awareness towards the right to information.

UPGRADING DIGITIZATION– The less corrupt countries like Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand have shown a better improvement rate in the protection of these rights to information activists. These three countries are ranked no. 1 in the corruption perception index published by transparency international. Hence the other measure to protect RTI activists is to reduce corruption which can be possible not only by strict laws but with digitization. As with it, there are few chances of wrong information being recorded regarding transactions. Blockchain technology can make such digitization a great success given that it’s easier to keep a record and track any changes in the system due to its immutability.

MAKE CENTRAL INFORMATION COMMISSION A CONSTITUTIONAL BODY:- Central Information Commission (CIC) has a statutory status under RTI Act 2005. It is not a constitutional body like the Election Commission, the salaries of chief Information commissioners are not fixed. RTI has been considered a fundamental right and this body is protecting a fundamental right given in our constitution hence CIC should be given a constitutional status so that the autonomy of this commission increases which in turn will help in making effective policies for the protection of RTI activists. 

 Conclusion

The attacks on RTI activists have increased manifold. They are harassed, brutally beaten, and left in a nearly dead situation. In a country like India which aims to attract foreign investors and institutions, such attacks affect our image in the international landscape and hamper our progress. 

It is possible to prevent the victimisation of RTI users by having effective legislation and enough power should be given to the bodies for establishing policies that are capable of delivering results. The involvement of lawyers for human rights and the proactive strategy of the data-related committees involved can contribute to rapid intervention. Another excellent choice is a helpline for RTI users involving information commissions and civil society organizations.

Though the government has attempted to put forth legislation like the dormant whistleblower act, there’s still an ocean that can be worked upon.

References

  1. Ayush Tiwari. “Right to information act 2005.” IPleaders (blog), November 5, 2022. https://blog.ipleaders.in/right-to-information-act-2005/
  2. “Right to Information.” Accessed December 24, 2022.
  3. https://www.unesco.org/en/right-information.
  4.   IndiaTimes.”Right to information” July 6, 2021.

5 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/readersblog/legal-writing/right-to-information-347

  1. The Tribune.“RTI activist seeks vigilance probe” December 26, 2021.
  2. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/Amritsar/rti-activist-seeks-vigilance-probe-464936

8 Prakhyat prakash mishra.”death for data:-Analysing adversity of RTI activist”https://cic.gov.in/sites/default/files/cic%20paper%20prakhyat%20mishra.pdf

Author : Radha Chahar