Heart of democracy
In 2005, India started down a truly transformational path. At the end of a long struggle, the much-awaited, hotly debated and minutely scrutinised RTI Act 2005 finally came into effect. With it came the opportunity for India's leaders to make good on the log standing promise of bringing true participatory democracy to a nation where the scale and complexity of governance often exclude citizen scrutiny. RTI was a right, a legitimate means by which a concerned citizen may hold the otherwise inscrutable actions of the Government up to the light.
Since its inception, RTI has become the most widely known and used law. A large part of this is due to the truly participatory nature of RTI. Citizens who know of it appraised others of its use and as the nation's desire for accountability grew, crores of RTIs were filed. Indeed, thousands of dedicated activists now not only file RTIs for public benefit but also educate others on its use. Its use empowered the citizens and made the officials aware of the increased potential scrutiny their actions may now face. Naturally, the RTI was not an infallible fix or a universally acclaimed policy decision. Over the years, its use has faced many challenges, sometimes from the very SC that made its existence possible in the first place. Most arguments that go against the use of RTI tend to generalise it as a tool to impede the work of honest officials and terrorise them. Indeed, exceptions and finer print points have been popping up regarding the RTI ever since it was instituted. Now, as RTI turns 15, it has been revealed that there are currently 2.21 lakh cases still pending with 20 information commissions as of July end. Equally, or perhaps even more, worrying are the many vacancies of chief information commissioners that head these information commissions. Nine of the 29 posts are vacant as of now, some have been vacant for a noticeably long time. Even the Central Information Commission itself has been without a head since August of this year. As it were, an SNS-CES study has also noted that the commissions built to bring transparency to Indian democracy are themselves not the most transparent public bodies. 25 of the 29 information commissions have been noted to not have published their annual report for 2019. Some have not published it since 2012.
The pandemic has brought the slow but certain stagnation of the RTI mechanism to the attention of the nation. It has been noted that only ten of the commissions are working at this point and even among them, very few appeals are being heard on account of 'technical snags' at a time when online hearings could expedite the vital process.
Over time, the law has been intentionally diluted, its advocates have come under fire and it has been left with an uncertain future where it may become no more than a token right that serves more as a tool of appeasement than a practical method for the citizenry to engage in the decisions that shape the nation. But it must be noted that no criticism of the current state of RTI has ever been complete without emphasising that the law itself is still worth fighting for. 15 years on and the great promise of RTI still shines bright. A law conceived with a truly democratic flow of inputs that helped shape its birth. The perceived failures of RTI must not lead to a call to abandon it as a lost cause. Instead, RTI must be protected, its use must be expanded and made even more widespread. Indeed, knowing how to file an RTI must become as much a duty of a citizen as voting or paying taxes. It is, after all, the participatory process of democracy given clear form. Suppressing and questioning the law as misuse of fundamental rights ultimately does not benefit the government or the governed.