NGOs India

Background of Right to Information (RTI)

Background of Right to Information (RTI) – Role of NGO to Implement the Law of RTI

The concept of a citizen’s Right To Information begins with the acknowledgment that citizens ought to be the true masters of a democracy. In India, since the government is of, for, and by the people, and is funded almost entirely by the taxes paid by the citizens, it is easy to see how the citizens are the root of the system of governance. However, these supposed “masters” of the country often had little or no access to essential information about the governance of their own country! It was to remedy this fundamental problem that the Right To Information Act was passed by the parliament.

The Right To Information is a fundamental right in every sense of the word because it is absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of a modern democracy since an uninformed citizen cannot possibly be expected to be a good citizen. Moreover, though, the Right To Information Act opens the doors to exposing all sorts of government inefficiency, malaise, corruption, and inadequacy. While the average citizen often complains about the present state of affairs of the country, he/she also usually lacks the understanding to make things right. That is how the Right To Information Act serves to empower even the weakest citizen to participate in their own governance.

The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) spearheaded the right to information movement in Rajasthan – and subsequently, throughout India. MKSS famously used the right to information as tool to draw attention to the underpayment of daily wage earners and farmers on government projects, and more generally, to expose corruption in government expenditure. Initially, MKSS lobbied government to obtain information such as muster rolls (employment and payment records) and bills and vouchers relating to purchase and transportation of materials. This information was then crosschecked at Jan Sunwais (public hearings) against actual testimonies of workers. The public hearings were incredibly successful in drawing attention to corruption and exposing leakages in the system. They were particularly significant because of their use of hard documentary evidence to support the claims of villagers.

Over time, the media and the government paid increasing attention to the results of the Jan Sunwais. Consequently, greater attention was focused on the importance of the right to information as a means for increasing transparency and accountability, as well as empowering poor people. Although MKSS was able to obtain some information from Government during the early 1990s, it was not easy. The difficulties experienced by MKSS in trying to access information reinforced the importance of a comprehensive right to information law for Rajasthan.

On 5 April 1995, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan announced in the Legislative Assembly that his Government would be the first in the country to provide access to information to citizens on all local developmental works. However, no action was taken for months. Exactly a year later on 6 April 1996, MKSS started an indefinite Dharna (protest demonstration) in Bewar town. Their immediate demand was that the State Government pass Executive Orders to provide a limited right to information in relation to local development expenditure. The government responded by issuing Orders to inspect relevant documents on payment of fees. However, the Order was rejected by civil society as ineffective because it did not allow taking photocopies of documents.

On 6 May 1996, one month later, the Dharna was extended to Jaipur, the state capital. The Dharna was strongly supported by the people of the State. On 14 May 1996, the Government responded, announcing the establishment of a committee to look into the practical aspects of implementing right to information within two months. In response, MKSS called off the Dharna. Unfortunately, Government interest again lapsed, such that in May 1997 another series of Dharnas commenced, which continued for 52 long days. At the end of this time, the Government announced that the Government had already notified the right to receive photocopies relating to local level government functions six months earlier! Civil society was taken by surprise – through all their discussions with Government it was the first time they had been told about the order providing access to information to people.

In 1998, during the State elections the Opposition Party promised in its election manifesto to enact a law on right to information if it came to power. Following their election, the Party appointed a committee of bureaucrats, headed by Mr P.N. Bhandari, a Secretary of the Rajasthan Government, to draft a bill on the right to information. As the Committee was comprised only bureaucrats, stong objections were raised by civil society organisations, following which the members of MKSS and National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information were invited to assist in drafting the bill.

MKSS and NCPRI conducted a host of consultations in each divisional headquarters of the State. Drawing on the input from these consultations, a draft civil society Right to Information Bill was prepared, which was then submitted to the Committee. The Committee drew on the citizens draft Bill for its recommendations, but refused to accept the Bill in toto.