RTI: Activism without purpose

By Prabhakar Timble
20 August 2013 07:44 IST

Like information technology and internet, right to information is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Those who use RTI for its own beauty to join the club of RTI activists defeat the purpose of this weapon. The larger use should be seen in areas of women empowerment, youth development, democratic rights, rights and entitlements of the underprivileged, abuse of executive discretion and strengthening of participative and good governance. From purpose focused beginnings amply and aptly shown by the political and social activist Aruna Roy and others, today it is also used by politicians for pure political fights, agents of corporate for commercial interests and ‘information businessmen” clothed as activists for blackmail and ulterior motives.  The Right to information Act gave birth to what is termed as RTI activists and their forums. If ‘information’ is a tool for a purpose it is to amplify and intensify social and public interest causes. RTI got evolved to empower the dalits, minorities, backward classes, the economically weaker sections and vulnerable groups. Today it is tilting towards exposing politicians and government officials. If there is juicy material to be exposed, it needs to be out in the open. There may be attempts to blackmail if there is fabric of such a kind. But, what is happening today is at variance from the fundamental preamble of the Right to Information Act.

Irrelevant and impracticable demands

Purposeless demand for information chokes the drains and pipes of government and later of Information Commissions. There are some applicants who take away hundreds of pages of information from government authorities every day. The government officials dodge, evade and avoid in providing information, frustrating the applicant. This results in burdening Chief Information Commissioners with appeals for non-compliance. The delay at the level of Information Commissions provides the “buying time” for government authorities and bureaucracy. The instances of applicants seeking information to harass or blackmail government officials are also increasing. In the absence of any public interest in seeking information, the RTI gets degenerated into settling scores and mudslinging. Indiscriminate and impractical demands by applicants with no relation to transparency, accountability and eradication of corruption are proving to be counterproductive. The executive and government machinery gets tied to non-productive work affecting the efficiency of administration.

The primary purpose of RTI Act to herald transparency in government functioning is defeated as every information of government functioning and operations has to be applied and sought. These issues can be addressed by the government through pro-active measures of disclosing information on its own and by not waiting for a demand from citizens. Information should be available on web portals of public authorities. This would reduce the work of PIOs and APIOs.

 

Bureaucrats in their career span conceal and evade information. After retirement, the same bureaucracy wants to be on regulatory bodies under the RTI act. Judges who have become experts and efficient in the field of adversary jurisprudence consider it to be their right and also duty of the government to install them on quasi-judicial bodies which follow a non-adversary methodology of jurisprudence. By their long experience, bureaucrats have mastered the art of concealing and delaying information. In a similar way, judges have attained expertise in legal surgery with their minds immersed in legalities as opposed to functional justice. There could be exceptions to this in respect of individual judges. At the same time, the higher judiciary should appreciate that quasi-judicial bodies are not to be converted into ordinary courts for long drawn battles on law, legal dissection and legal language.

Use and abuse

The RTI has helped bonafide applicants and citizens to get information which was otherwise denied to them. The weapon has been profitably used to get a ration card, a passport, land records and titles, admissions to academic courses, protection from police atrocities, entitlements to rural employment programmes and social welfare schemes. It is abundantly clear now that government contracts are not confidential. RTI has exposed frauds and unearthed scams such as dead men on government rolls and the nexus between law-makers, law-breakers and white-collar criminals.

 On the negative side, it has also assisted those who have knocked for personal vendetta and ulterior motives. The so termed activists also apply for absurd and irrelevant information and ask questions unrelated to the tenets of transparency and public causes. Such frivolous applications need to be dealt with sternly and with contempt by the Information Commissions to restore the RTI for the purposes it has been enacted.

On the one side, the genuine applicants are harassed by the official machinery. The applicants are almost viewed as citizens of enemy territory and as rivals of government in power. The mindset has to be that government exists for citizens. Citizens can have genuine grievances in respect of services not provided, services denied, services delayed, discretion abused, rights violated and duties not performed by the official machinery. They have a right to know the reasons for these lapses and also demand performance. What is expected is information-friendly officials who hold confidentiality as an exception.

The other side story has also tales where the RTI is used for social recognition as RTI activists and without any public or personal grievance except the vicarious pleasure of harassing bureaucrats and the political executive. A user of internet cannot be elevated to an internet activist and the same applies to users of RTI. Activists are users of RTI in the public, humanitarian, democratic, governance and secular causes they espouse. I just cannot comprehend a caste of exclusive RTI activists unattached to causes.

RTI has restored some degree of discipline in terms of transparency, accountability and responsiveness in government administration. Reckless and purposeless activism should not convert RTI into a dreaded monster wherein the executive and officers sulk into inaction, indecision and non-performance.      

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Prabhakar Timble

Mr Prabhakar Timble is an educationist and a legal expert. He has served several educational institutions, especially as the Principal of Government College at Quepem, Kare College of Law in Madgao as well as couple of Management Institutes. He was also the State Election Commissioner of Goa.

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