8 years on, RTI Act counts its milestones -Shyamlal Yadav

-The Indian Express


Eight years may seem like a short stretch to appraise a landmark law such as the Right To Information Act, especially in a large and diverse country such as India.

But the transparency law enacted on October 12, 2005, has managed to leave its imprint in this short period, becoming a new weapon in the hands of people.

Not only has the RTI act been used to know more about government, it has also become a tool to make public institutions and officials accountable and fight corruption.

Otherwise, what can explain government ministers, bureaucrats and judges of the Supreme Court and high courts making details of their assets public? Or the amount the government has spent on foreign trips of ministers and officials? Or the UPSC and IITs opening up their selection processes for public scrutiny and ensuring fairplay.

Information accessed through the RTI Act has also played a key role in unearthing scams such as those in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the 2G spectrum allotment and the allotment of houses in the Adarsh Society in Mumbai, among others.

The following are some of the key achievements of the RTI Act.:

ASSETS OF SC/HC JUDGES

When RTI activist Subhash Agrawal filed an RTI application in the Supreme Court asking if all judges had filed details of their assets and liabilities to the Chief Justice of India as mandated by a resolution of a meeting of judges in 1997, the Supreme Court contended that it was not a public authority under the RTI Act. However, the request seemed to have served its purpose as details of the assets of all judges of the Supreme Court were published on the website of the court and it is now updated annually. The high courts have followed in the footsteps of the SC and eight of them have so far published details of the assets and liabilities of their judges.

ASSETS OF MINISTERS

In 1964, the Union cabinet adopted a resolution that said every minister would declare details of his/her assets and liabilities and the assets of his/her spouse and dependents to the PMO after being sworn in as a minister. A copy of this resolution was also forwarded to state governments by the then home minister Yashwantrao Chavan asking them to follow suit. But the resolution had not been taken seriously.

But in 2008, when the PMO and the cabinet secretariat were asked for the status of the implementation of the resolution, they forwarded the RTI applications to each other saying it was the responsibility of the other.

RTI activists, however, did not give up and filed numerous applications until the government was forced to publish details. UPA-2 went on to become the first government where details of all union ministers were published promptly after the council was sworn in.

ASSETS OF BUREAUCRATS

When RTI activists began filing applications to various civil services cadre controlling authorities for details of the assets and liabilities of officials, they were returned saying the information sought was personal. They fought hard to protect the information but had to bow to pressure from civil society and publish the assets and liabilities of bureaucrats. It started with the IAS, IPS and Indian Forest Services and has since been expanded to cover most civil services.

INCOME TAX RETURNS OF POLITICAL PARTIES

In what is seen as a major decision under the RTI Act, the Central Information Commission in June 2008 ruled in favour of an appeal by the Association for Democratic Reforms that Income Tax Returns filed by political parties can be disclosed under the RTI Act. Parties did not challenge this ruling in court and information that has been obtained since has led to a serious study of the funding of political parties and brought them under pressure.

SCAMS & SCANDALS

While the RTI act has proved to be a potent weapon for ordinary citizens, it has been more lethal in the hands of those with some understanding of the system. The unearthing of scandals and scams such as those involving 2G spectrum allotment, coal blocks allotment, organisation of the Commonwealth Games and allotment of apartments in Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai, was greatly helped by information accessed under the RTI act.


The Indian Express, 12 October, 2013, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/8-years-on-rti-act-counts-its-milestones/1181554/0

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