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Mainstream, VOL LV No 33 New Delhi August 5, 2017

Challenges before Right to Information

Saturday 5 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW

by JAYANTA DEBNATH

Right to Information: Empowerment and Good Governance by Rajeev Kumar Singh; New Delhi: Mewar University Press; 2016; pp. xx + 284; Rs 550.

We are living in a post-industrialist society. Daniel Bell argued that post-industrialism would be information-led and service-oriented. When we talk about services, then two different parts regarding service delivery system comes to our attention, namely, the service provider and the one at the receiving end. Here, service receivers are the common people; on the other hand, the providers of services are often referred to as being either in the private sector or in the public sector. In general, when we go to explore the relationships of state and its citizens, then it is the public authority which aims at providing better services to its own citizens. If the government at different levels is able to provide all the necessary services which are fundamental to the people for living a quality life, then it is considered to be a mirror of “Good Governance”, but if it fails to do so, it represents “Poor Governance or Bad Governance”. Hence, how the citizen could realise good governance, especially from the public authorities, is a much-debated issue. In this context, the book, Right to Information: Empowerment and Good Governance, provides an avenue for our critical discussion.

The book has been divided into seven chapters. The first chapter deals with general meanings of right to information, freedom of information and the constitutional background of right to information in the Western countries as well as in India. Professor Singh also explores freedom of information as a ‘global movement’ in chapter 2. He further highlights country-wise approaches in regard to right to information. Interestingly, he has shown in his study that other rights may emerge from right to information. An effective presentation of consti-tutional and judicial roots of RTI in India is also presented in chapter 3. Chapter 4 discusses Right to Information in India, 2005 where he outlines some landmark judgements of the Central Information Commission in interpreting the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005. The last section of this chapter brings out the fundamental challenges before the Right to Information Act, India. How the common people would benefit with the help of RTI and how RTI can empower the citizen is sufficiently explained in chapter 5. Chapter 6 maintains that right to information could be a highway to good governance. At the same time, in this chapter the author discusses some recent developments in India regarding the issue and the civil society movement which ultimately led to the enactment of the Lokpal Act, 2013. The last and final chapter of this volume contains some constructive suggestions and comments of the author to overcome the deficiencies of the existing RTI provisions and what should be done to turn the RTI Act into an effective tool for a vibrant democracy and national advancement.

RTI as a Global Movement

Right to Information can be seen as a global movement. Here, in this book the author has shown that more than 50 countries of the globe have already enacted national legislations for disclosure of information and 30 more countries are in the process of enacting such laws. Actually, right to information comes from the right to freedom of information. The United Nations as an international organisation for promoting human rights and creating a democratic environment across the globe recognised the necessity of right to information both within the state territory and outside. In 1946 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which stated that freedom of information is a fundamental human right. In 1993, the United Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and declared that Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) imposed ‘a positive obligation on the states to give access to information’. Even the Charter of the African Union recognised the right of people to seek and receive information. In 2008, the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on Human Rights (CDDH) adopted the Convention on Access to Official Documents at Strasbourg. The UNESCO also displayed its commitment towards removing obstacles on the free flow of information.

If we go by a country-specific approach in relation to right to information, it will be noticed that the Swedish Parliament passed the world’s first freedom of information law. The South African Constitution also guarantees that everyone has the right to access information held by the state or another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any right. The United Kingdom enacted the Freedom of Information Act in 2000. Earlier in British politics, there were some secrecy laws contained in the Official Secret Acts of 1919, 1920 and 1939. Because of these Secret Acts, it was very difficult for the common people to get access to information. In fact, this kind of secrecy was first minimised when the Local Government (Access to Information) Act, 1985 provided a legal right to information against local govern-ments. It did not end here; some Common-wealth countries also took similar initiatives in this regard like the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Uganda. The countries of the West such as the USA, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand and even Japan have already enacted the Right to Information Act. The author in chapter 2 succinctly presents all these important aspects. He also talks about the Indian experience comprehensively in chapters 3 and 4.

We know as a matter of fact how social activist Aruna Roy contributed to enacting the Right to Information Act in India. Actually, RTI in India is the fruit of a long struggle of Ms Roy and her team against corruption. But it is unfortunate that her role is not highlighted in this book. She founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghthan (MKSS) to fight bribery and stood for open access to information as an issue of public interest. She led several campaigns from the front for the rights of the poor and marginalised. Aruna Roy along with Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh fought for ensuring social justice through the right to information movement. The MKSS campaigned for fair and equal wages for the workers and that ultimately led to the enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005. The Right to Information Act, 2005, does not cover whole territory of India. It cannot be implemented in Jammu and Kashmir, something not mentioned in the book.

Nevertheless, right to information could be viewed as a global movement. It is often observed that no government takes deliberate action to make laws for openness in adminis-tration. The government passes laws in this area only because social activists and civil society organisations force the government and decision-makers to ensure a responsive and transparent administration. In the real sense, the political executive lacks willingness in this regard. Actually, to make a corruption-free country and society right to information has a critical role. In India, it has been seen recently that black money has become a major problem. In this circumstance, the people’s utmost desire is the disclosure of black money account holders by the government, but the government has little interest in revealing that. In spite of having RTI provision in the administrative set-up of the country, it is not being used properly due to the absolute apathy at the government level.

Illiteracy as Democratic Deficit

Merely making laws or provisions is not enough for the success of democracy. Democracy focuses upon inclusive development and such develop-ment, no doubt, rests absolutely on how the people of a particular country are free from the veil of ignorance. To overcome this we need mass education. Education is the best solution of every problem. It makes the people empowered. Only through proper education, people would be more critical of every policy and decision taken by the government at different times. In the real sense literacy is the key for socio-economic progress. At present, the literacy rate of India is 74.04 per cent, according to the 2011 data, though field studies may give a different picture. Thus, it signifies that over 30 crore people have remained illiterate till date in the country. As India is a country of nearly 130 crore people, the significance of this fact must be fully realised. As many as 30 crore people, meaning the total population of the United States, are illiterate in India. As huge numbers of people are not getting the taste of primary education in this country, how is it possible to use RTI effectively as an instrument for the redressal of citizens’ grievances? This crucial question has not been dealt with by the author in this volume.

Will Empowered Citizens bring Good Governance in Administration?

Professor Singh has rightly observed that there is a cause-effect relationship between right to information and good governance. In fact, he asserts that right to information is the key to strengthening participatory democracy. He also emphasises on the need for the whistle-blower’s protection for ensuring transparency, accounta-bility, openness and flexibility in administration. Some notable examples of good usage of RTI are also brought to our attention. He mentions in chapter 6 that proper use of right to information can provide good governance. For example, the applications filled by RTI activists Yogacharya Anandji and Simpreet Singh in 2008 were instrumental in bringing out the Adarsh Society scam in public by exposing the close nexus between politicians and State officials, thereby ultimately leading to the resignation of then Maharashtra Chief Minister, Ashok Chavan.

The author in this book offered various means through instances by which one can boost the confidence to use RTI effectively. There is no doubt that if we utilise RTI in an efficient way, then people will surely be empowered. In the words of David Osborne, ‘we don’t need more government, we need better government’. Thus only a good government can provide us good governance. So the government should take sufficient measures so that people can use RTI positively to make the administration more open, dynamic and participatory. If people succeed to achieve this with the help of the administration, then the hope of good governance will gradually emerge. All these perspectives are brilliantly spelt out in this chapter.

Conclusion

In the last chapter of this volume the author critically evaluates the gaps which even now exist within the RTI Act especially in India. He gives importance to increasing awareness in rural areas about RTI, as he aptly notes that mostly the urban educated people use this Act to enjoy their basic rights. He also points out that to make information official the local language, in which the application is made, is most important. Another interesting idea offered by Prof Rajeev Kumar Singh is the incorporation of the private sector within the ambit of the Right to Information Act, as today’s age is the era of privatisation due to the immense impact of globalisation.

However, in reviewing this book, a few gaps and errors have been noticed. Page 2 of chapter 1 refers to ‘Right to Information and Good Governance’, but the cover page of the volume reveals something different. Also anyone can argue with the author when he says on page 215 that predictability is one of the major elements of good governance. Last but not the least, nowhere in the book has Singh raised the question which is in fact extremely crucial for the largest democracy of the world and that is: why did the government take 58 years to enact the Right to Information Act? The Indian Constitution guarantees people’s rights in Article 19(1) and it is said that people will enjoy freedom of speech and expression, but in spite of that the government delayed to make laws on this basis. Yet, overall the book is a valuable contribution in this area of research. Moreover, it is a dynamic volume, as it incorporates recent developments regarding RTI in India. Actually, Professor Singh is right to convey that Right to Information would be a highway to Good Governance if it is harnessed properly.

References

Arora, Ramesh K. and Rajni Goyal (1995, Third Edition 2013), Indian Public Administration Institutions and Issues, New Delhi: New Age International (P) Limited Publishers.

Basu, Rumki (1994, Reprint 2014), Public Administration: Concept and Theories, New Delhi: Sterling.

Bhattachraya, Mohit (2000, Sixth Revised Edition 2011). New Horizons of Public Administration, New Delhi: Jawahar Publishers and Distributors.

Maheshwari, S.R. (1968), Indian Administration, New Delhi: Orient Longman Private Limited.

National Campaign for People’s Right to Information http://www.rightiinformation.info. Retrieved on 9.02.2017.

Pylee, M.V. (1994, Reprint 2014), India’s Constitution, New Delhi: S. Chand & Company Pvt. Ltd.

Jayanta Debnath is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Mrinalini Datta Mahavidyapith, Kolkata.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62