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.
What NGO can play and perform its role in Tight to Information.
Role of NGOs, CSOs etc.:
Participation in governance is at the heart of any successful democracy. As citizens, we need to participate not only at the time of elections but on a day-to-day basis – when decisions on policy, laws and schemes are being made and projects and activities are being implemented. Public involvement not only enhances the quality of governance but also promotes transparency and accountability in government functioning. But in reality how can citizens take part in governance? How can the public understand how decisions are being made? How can ordinary people find out how tax money is being spent or if public schemes are being properly run or whether the government is acting honestly and fairly when it makes decisions? How can government servants be made answerable to the public they are supposed to serve?
One way of participating is by exercising the right to access information from bodies which spend public money or perform public services. Following the enactment of the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act) in May 2005, all citizens of India now have the RIGHT to access information. The RTI Act recognises that in a democracy like India, all information held by government ultimately belongs to the people. Making information available to citizens is simply a part of normal government functioning because the public have a right to know what public officials do with their money and in their name.
Social Audit is an independent and participatory evaluation of the performance of a public agency or a programme or scheme. It is an instrument of social accountability whereby an in-depth scrutiny and analysis of working of a public authority vis-à-vis its social responsibility can be undertaken. It also enables the Civil Society to assess whether a public authority lives up to the shared values and objectives it is committed to. It provides an assessment of the impact of a public authority’s non-financial objectives through systematic and regular monitoring based on the views of its stakeholders.
The primary benefits of Social Audit are:
Using the RTI Act, NGOs and CSOs, therefore, can facilitate social audits of government processes, activities, programmes, schemes etc., and help improve public service delivery and the efficacy and accountability of public officials. They can use the RTI Act to inspect various processes, programmes and schemes of any public authority. They can even examine the works undertaken by any Government Department at any stage and draw samples of materials that are in use. NGOs and CSOs can also collect and verify records, documents and samples of particular works undertaken by the Government. The following sections help illustrate how RTI can be used to access information and enable social audit of processes, programmes and schemes so as to improve public service delivery and enhance accountability of public officials. However, it needs to be noted that the illustrations given below are selective and are meant for guiding NGOs and CSOs to access specific information that could be used to undertake Social Audits.
To play an integral part in bringing about a practical regime transparent and accountable in governance, NGOs and CSOs may undertake the following:
The greatest challenge does not lie in making the legislation work and to penetrate age-old walls of secrecy, but in accurately identifying the information that the different communities need in order to bring about social and economic development. NGOs and CSOs must then act as a bridge to elicit information, using the new law that will serve the interests of the weak and the poor, because inequality of access to information reflects a deeper inequality of power. If civil society is active, then the RTI Act will be a useful instrument in the fight for social justice.
In realising the objectives of the RTI Act, the role of NGOs and CSOs assumes considerable importance. As an important actor in the governance process and as a bridge between the community and public agencies, NGOs and CSOs can not only play an important role in monitoring public service delivery by invoking provisions under the RTI Act but also in generating awareness and building capacity among the community on RTI.
Information is power and is regarded as the oxygen of democracy. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they cannot take a
meaningful part in the affairs of the society. Freedom of expression, free dissemination of ideas and access to information are vital to the functioning of a democratic government. Information is crucial for a vibrant democracy and good governance as it reflects and captures Government activities and processes. Access to information not only facilitates active participation of the people in the democratic governance process, but also promotes openness, transparency and accountability in administration. ‘Right to Information’ (RTI), the right of every citizen to access information held by or under the control of public authorities, can thus be an effective tool for ushering in good governance.
Transparency means that decisions are taken openly and enforced as per rules and regulations. It requires that information is freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement. It also means that enough information is provided to all the stakeholders in easily understandable forms and media to enable their meaningful participation in decision making processes. Accountability means that public institutions and functionaries are answerable to the people and to their institutional stakeholders. Accountability cannot be enforced without a regime of transparency.
A direct relationship exists between right to Information, informed citizenry and good governance. The Right to Information provides citizens the opportunity of being informed of what the Government does for them, why and how it does it. Public participation in Government, respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression and association, transparency and accountability, responsiveness, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, accountability, strategic vision and consensus- orientation, legitimacy of Government, and the like, which are the core values of good governance, can be realised only if the right to information is implemented in the right spirit. Right to information is the hallmark of good governance.
The media can make a real difference to the lives of poor and disadvantaged people by:making people more aware of their rights and entitlements;
The three main areas through which the media can make a significant impact on development and poverty reduction are:
Media has a definite role to play in the empowerment of citizens. It gives voice to the needs and aspirations of the people and provides them access to relevant information. When people lack a voice in the public arena, or access to information on issues that affect their lives, and if their concerns are not reasonably reflected in the public domain, their capacity to participate in democratic processes is undermined.
Media, in all its varied forms, has opened up the potential for new forms of participation. The access to information and accessibility of information has increased with growth of print and electronic media and the Internet. Thus, the vulnerable and marginalized sections of the society such as the poor, women, weaker sections and socially disadvantaged are also using the media to make their voices heard.
The media can be effective in not only preserving freedom but also extending it. The news media plays a decisive role in establishing a discursive space for public deliberations over social issues. The formative influence of the media on public attitudes, thoughts and perceptions is fundamental to the process of citizen engagement in public dialogue. Giving a voice to the poor also entails giving the poor people adequate opportunities to take initiatives for overcoming their problems. The media, through its role in shaping public awareness and action, can be a critical factor in facilitating sustainable development and poverty reduction.
Good governance is recognized as central to poverty eradication, and a free media is a necessary condition for good governance. As an information conduit between corporations, government, and the populace, the media acts as a watchdog against government malfeasance, while at the same time fostering greater transparency and accountability. The media monitors public service delivery and reports on key issues to the public at large, and in this process exerts pressure on public service providers. By highlighting institutional failings to guard against and institutional successes for replication, the media creates the right framework of incentives for good governance.
The following section provides cues for the media to use the RTI Act in discharging the following roles:
However, it needs to be noted that the suggested areas are selective and are provided only to guide the media to effectively use the RTI Act provisions.
Primary Health Services subject to exemptions under section 8(1)