Why are the erstwhile RTI campaigners so alarmed five years after it became law? Why so many dharnas, rallies, conventions and hunger-strikes all over again? Part of the reason is that the silent revolution that the RTI has spawned needs to be defended from surreptitious alterations and manipulations, and partly because the RTI activists are being threatened, harassed and assaulted by the corrupt and the powerful, often with the connivance of the official machinery.
Today the biggest news about RTI is that it has reopened the debate about transparency, accountability, and the need for effective anti-corruption laws. Those who campaigned for RTI now believe that the country must evolve a clear mechanism for the selection of the Information Commissioners and it must provide legal protection to RTI users and other whistleblowers. Many organisations are now demanding constitutional mechanism of an ombudsman like Lokpal and Lok-ayukta, and transparency in the pre-legislative process, which are like the next logical steps after the RTI legislation. (See links below) Thousands of Indians all over the country are going to join and support social activist and Gandhian Anna Hazare who has already announced that he will sit on an indefinite fast demanding the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill to combat political corruption.
According to a list released by the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) activists at the National RTI convention in Shillong on March 10-12, as many as 15 RTI applicants have been murdered, one died in suspicious circumstances and another suspected to have been driven to commit suicide since 2005. The NCPRI team has also compiled names of 31 RTI activists who have been assaulted and beaten up and another 37 who have been threatened or against whom fake and motivated police cases have been registered. (Please see the link below for the name-wise list of cases so far). The darker side clearly reinforces the fact that this weapon of the weak is upsetting the corrupt and the powerful.
The NCPRI has demanded in its Shillong Declaration that it is the moral responsibility of the government to protect RTI activists and users. The declaration says that in case an RTI seeker is attacked, “the information that was being sought by the assaulted activist is urgently and on priority basis put in the public domain and followed up.” It called for a National RTI Council and demanded that the rules and procedures must be defined to ensure easy flow of information from projects under public-private partnership, the private sector, political parties, trade unions, NGOs and cooperative societies which already fall under the purview of the RTI Act.
The RTI campaigners believe that just like the attacks on the individual applicants the RTI Act 2005 itself has been facing an onslaught of powerful lobbies of Ministers, bureaucrats and, at many places, elected Panchayat leaders. Its opponents have been trying to disable and defang the Act through (unsuccessful) amendments but insist that they have been doing so in public interest, and at the ‘request’ of the Information Commissioners. The intelligence agencies and the armed forces have pleaded exemption in ‘national interest’ from the very beginning but the police and even the judiciary are doing their bit to undermine the Act by trying to stay out of its ambit. Attempts are also on to weaken the Act at the Central and State levels by tinkering with the prevailing 88 different sets of RTI rules in India. Some have tried to use the courts to subvert the system while others are doing so by making the modes of payment higher and increasingly more difficult. For some other bureaucrats the archaic and colonial Official Secrets Act 1923 comes in handy to deny information.
But RTI Act has survived systematic attacks because unlike most other present-day legislations it emerged from the bottom and not from the top. The Act was a result of numerous mass movements of the most ordinary people, and struggles and advocacy by a vibrant civil society. And the result is for everybody to see. In the first few years, about 30 per cent of applicants from rural India belonged to the society’s weaker sections, though the percentage was only half in urban India, according to the findings of a Peoples’ RTI Assessment. So far about five million people have sought information under RTI. A cursory search on Google titled “Right to Information India” gets about 12.8 million results in less than 30 seconds. Scores of websites store thousands of happy-ending RTI success stories. There are more than one hundred sites which provide free information and dozens of others provide step by step guidance on how to file an RTI application.
Among the most significant organizations which continue their relentless campaign against attempted dilution of RTI in India are the NCPRI, and the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM). The NCPRI recently held its national RTI convention in Shillong on March 10-12, 2011 and the NAPM is holding a rally on March 23 at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Attended by dozens of NGOs and civil society organizations, the Shillong Declaration is given below. Also enclosed is a press statement by the NAPM and the campaign against corruption.org on behalf of Anna Hazare.
NCPRI ON RTI
SHILLONG DECLARATION ON THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION
Declaration made by the participants of the Third National RTI Convention, held in Shillong, between March 10-12, 2011
WE, THE PARTICIPANTS OF THE THIRD NATIONAL RTI CONVENTION, HEREBY DECLARE THAT:
1. It is the responsibility of the government to properly implement proactive disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act. We therefore demand that they urgently fulfil this responsibility.
2. We urgently need an anti-corruption commission or body, like the Lokpal/Lokayukta, which can ensure that information accessed through the RTI Act that exposes corruption is acted upon and the guilty are held accountable.
3. It is the moral responsibility of the government to protect RTI activists and users, and take swift legal action against the attackers. It is also the moral obligation of governments and information commissions to ensure that, if an activist is attacked, the information that was being sought by the assaulted activist is urgently and on a priority basis, put in the public domain and followed up.
4. There must be a process by which all draft legislations, before they are introduced in Parliament or in legislative assemblies, are put in the public domain and there are public consultations before their enactment.
5. The constitution and functioning of information commissions requires overhauling. The process of selecting commissioners must be transparent and participatory, and commissions must ensure that the promotion of transparency is their sole focus.
6. We want the Government of India to set up a National RTI Council (similar to the Central Employment Guarantee Council) which has, as members, people from various states, so that problems in implementing the RTI Act can be monitored regularly.
7. Public private partnerships, the private sector, political parties, trade unions, NGOs, and cooperative societies are all under the purview of the RTI Act. Rules and procedures need to be defined to ensure that information from them can be easily accessed.
8. Exemption given under Section 24 to security and intelligence agencies are irrational and contrary to national interest, and this needs to be removed – not by amendment of the Act but by withdrawing the list of notified agencies in the second schedule of the RTI Act.
9. For those areas in North Eastern India, where there are no local governments (panchayati raj institutions), rules and procedures need to be defined to facilitate the access of local level information under the RTI Act.
10. There must be transparency in religious institutions and about the use of public funds for religious purpose.
11. All government expenditure must be subject to social/public audits.
12. We stand by all the other resolutions passed by the various workshops.
NAPM ON RTI
Right to Information Act has been in existence for more than five years now and marked revolutionary changes in the realm of governance. It has been a tool to fight the bureaucratic corruption and seek information pertinent to public good. As a result, it has also been under attack from various quarters. Even as we move ahead to make it more effective, NAPM believe that these concerns need immediate redressal.
Making the process of filing of RTI applications simple:
It is important that the process of filing of RTI applications becomes simple and accessible for people from across the country. Three years back, Bihar set up a call centre to receive RTI applications. In this system, people have been given a phone number. They call up this number, tell their name, address and what information do they need from the government. Their voice gets recorded and the voice becomes RTI application. Rs 10 application fee gets debited to phone bill.
This system is extremely useful to the rural people, who had to come to district headquarters earlier to file RTI applications. It is also useful for illiterate people who can simply call up and ask questions without needing to write RTI applications.
A team from Central Government headed by a joint Secretary studied this system and gave a very positive report. Yet, the governments have not implemented this system. We therefore, demand that this system should be implemented everywhere in the country.
Selection and appointments of Information Commissioners:
RTI has been declared as a part of our fundamental rights by various High Courts and Supreme Court in several judgements. Role of Information Commissioners is extremely critical in protecting the right of citizens to information. However, both state and central governments have been appointing information commissioners in secretive and non-participatory manner. While making these appointments, rather than examining the commitment of the candidate towards transparency, his/her loyalty to the political party in power is the criteria for appointment. In most states, retiring Chief Secretaries, due to their proximity to the Chief Ministers have been able to get themselves appointed as Chief Information Commissioners. In the centre, two retiring DOPT secretaries got themselves appointed as Information Commissioners.
Therefore, NAPM demands that the governments should lay down a transparent and participatory process for selecting information commissioners. In this regard, we can learn from Indonesia and South Africa, who have a very transparent and participatory process. Borrowing heavily from the practices adopted in these countries, a meeting of RTI activists, held at Indian Institute of Public Administration in Delhi in August 2010, suggested a system appropriate for our country to all the state and central governments. We demand that these suggestions should immediately be implemented.
An appeal to Information Commissions
RTI Act is the only Act passed by Parliament of India which prescribes a penalty for an officer, to be deducted from his salary, who does not do his job in time. The penalty has to be imposed by Information Commissioners. However, most commissioners hesitate in imposing penalties. A survey shows that of all the recorded violations, penalties were imposed in just 2% cases last year. This has emboldened the officials and they take RTI lightly, as a result of which the commissions are saddled with huge pendencies. We, therefore, demand that the commissioners should adopt a zero tolerance towards RTI violations and impose penalties in every case of violation.
Likewise, almost 62% orders passed by Information Commissioners are not complied with. Though the commissioners have the powers of summons and issuing arrest warrants if summons are violated, just one commissioner from all over the country has shown the courage to issue arrest warrants. We demand that the commissioners should invoke all powers available at their command to ensure implementation of their orders.
Transparency in judiciary:
It is unfortunate that the same judiciary, which spoke about Right to Information so vocally in the last few decades, suddenly became adverse to it, when it came to applying it to themselves. The rules framed by various High Courts violate the basic provisions of RTI. They have also prescribed very high fee. We, therefore demand that the judiciary should implement RTI Act in its letter and spirit.
Nationwide Action Against Corruption on March 23
On occasion of Shahid Bhagat Singh's martyrs day NAPM and associated organisations announce nationwide action against not only massive economic corruption in various government programmes but in utilisation and exploitation of our natural resources and right to life and livelihood of people. Corporations and political power together are looting our land, water, river, forests and minerals and we from people's movements have been exposing this corruption in Lavasa, Adarsh Housing Society and others in Maharashtra, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Narmada Valley. Expanding the boundary of corruption we call upon everyone to stand up to stop the destruction of our planet earth and protect the ruthless and corrupt exploitation of our natural resources from the tentacles of unscrupulous businesses and those in power.
[This resolution was endorsed by NAPM bi-ennial Convention on Oct 25-26, 2010 at Badwani, Madhya Pradesh]
National Alliance of People’s Movements; National Office: Room No. 29-30, 1st floor, ‘A’ Wing, Haji Habib Bldg, Naigaon Cross Road, Dadar (E), Mumbai - 400 014;
Delhi Contact : 09818905316
Anna Hazare will go on an indefinite fast from 5th April 2011 to bring anti-corruption law on the lines of “Jan Lokpal Bill”,
Draft anti-corruption Bill,
Draft Lokayukta Bill,
Govt.'s Lokpal Bill,
Critique of Govt.'s Lokpal Bill,
NCPRI RTI Convention 2011, http://righttoinformation.info/shillong-declaration/
Social Audit of NREGS in Araria reveals corruption, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/social-audit-of-nregs-
Poor people unite against corrupt sarpanches, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/poor-people-unite-agai
Move to take the sting out of the RTI, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/move-to-take-the-sting
No back door amendments to RTI Act, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/no-back-door-amendment
Social audits lead to action against corrupt officials, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/social-audits-lead-to-
Great opportunity for media persons to witness Social Audits in Rajasthan, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/great-opportunity-for-
Information delayed is Information denied, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/information-delayed-is
CITIZENS' PROTEST AGAINST DILUTION OF RTI, http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/citizens-protest-again
Get on with Whistleblower’s Act by Mrs Maja Daruwala, CHRI,
Dangerous to know: India's Right to Information Act by Rupam Jain Nair, AFP, 2 March, 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hK-CWZV
Shillong RTI Convention concludes, The Assam Tribune, 12 March, 2011,
Simpreet Singh, RTI activist from National Alliance for Peoples Movement (NAPM) interviewed by Viju B, The Times of India, 25 February, 2011,
400-page chargesheet filed in Gujarat's Amit Jethava murder case, DNA, 19 February, 2011, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_400-page-chargesheet-
Threats shadow activists by Pallavi Singh & Maitreyee Handique, Live Mint, 9 February, 2011, http://www.livemint.com/2011/02/09204612/Threats-shadow-ac