Excerpts from an interview with Amrita Johri, RTI activist from Satark Nagrik Sangathan, by Sumit Chaturvedi. (Edited for grammatical coherence).
On the change, if any, in the nature of information asked for and the information proactively provided, since the beginning of RTI act 2005 up to now.
Initially one would ask even for things like copies of laws, copies of policies and also asking them to maintain these, because when RTI came in, till then there wasn’t any kind of mechanism to get this information. So we really went from being a regime that was completely opaque to suddenly a one very, very transparent. Also because of the section 4 a lot of, at least basic information is put out in the public domain. For example there was a period when an assembly would pass a law and it was not put out in the public domain. So we would be filing RTIs for a copy of the same. Today that situation has changed because mostly there is a trend towards publishing policies. I can’t say that it’s true for all over India but vis-à-vis central government and in some of the states. Also there is a change in the government websites where earlier you would get just the basic data about the organisation. So in one sense there is a change in terms of what we are asking, since we are no longer asking for copies of laws but looking at them section wise and then asking them questions with regards to their compliance, asking for information as to how they have complied with a particular section or the other. But at another level what has been our finding with regards to personal experiences of people is that in 67% of the cases, the information asked should have been already disclosed under the section 4 of the RTI act. So, we are talking about a scenario where even without the RTI, information should be provided proactively. For example if you file a complaint you should get an acknowledgment or if you are having some sort of correspondence with the government, there should be a feedback. All of these are expected in a democracy, in a civilised society with or without an RTI. Even today when we look at the kind of RTIs being filed in communities, most of them are still about basic entitlements like rations, pensions etc. something which should have already been proactively provided under section 4 of the act.
On ease of filing RTIs in government offices and disclosure of RTI-related information in government departments.
As part of our research what we do is to file RTIs and check for disclosures. Now, while the government has done a semi-descent job of online disclosure, they have really lagged behind in offline disclosure. Offline disclosure is really the way to get to more people. The latest figures in the media suggest that, only 25% of the people in the country have access to the net. And with this access of net, it doesn’t mean good enough access to broadband speed. Even the DOPT has no board explaining what is the RTI act. Accessing ministries is itself a huge problem. For example Delhi Secretariat is one of the most inaccessible places unless you go and get a pass made. So in that sense, a lot more needs to be done in terms of facilitating filing of RTI. Something we have been suggesting is that there should be information and communication centres in all public authorities, which can actually help you in filing of RTIs.
On Public Information Officer authority and their obligations.
One of the big aspects is the appointment of the PIO in charge of dealing with RTI. Typically there is an admin clerk in charge of PIO. That is problematic because there need to be at least two or three points of public information in the authority which can serve as the window to the organisation who are actually knowledgeable about the workings. Very often you have doubts in your mind as well as to how to ask the questions. In that sense even the RTI act envisages the role of the PIO for assistance in asking for information. That part is completely missing. I have never actually heard of a PIO assisting someone translating an oral request into a written one which is mandated by law that they should.
On comprehensibility and awareness of the RTI act.
I feel the RTI act is one of the easiest to understand laws. Having read a lot of government legislations, I feel RTI act having emerged from a lot of civil society activism, it is actually in very simple English. You don’t find Latin words thrown around. It is very easy to understand but the effort that government needs to make on is awareness creation, something that is completely missing. Till a while back there was still something that one could catch in the mass media like there was this song, “Hum janenge, Hum haq se janenge” by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy. One would catch it on FM and on television. But in the last about two years it has become rarer to find anywhere. If you also compare this with other acts such as NREGA, the effort that has gone into it was unmatched vis-à-vis RTI act. And that’s something which we have seen increasingly get worse. Earlier there were campaigning from time to time. Here the role of information commission is also important. Also commission needs to be much more proactive in carrying out awareness drives. I think the law is easy to use but expecting citizens to read laws is unrealistic as I don’t think ours is a society that would read laws. That’s how people lead their lives. I really find that the online portal that they have developed is very good. It’s very descriptive. I have seen people who have never used RTI or are not even much aware about computers, have been able to use it. You need simple, straightforward, short videos. And I think most of the work for awareness has actually been done by civil society and to a very large extent by media by projecting those stories done by civil society at a very large scale. Taking up those “success stories” has led to this mass adoption of the RTI act.
On RTI act and the changes expected in the bureaucracy.
I think even today the challenges that you face without using the RTI act are very difficult and I think that’s where the change in mindset that one had hoped for hasn’t come. Even today if I want to ask how a government office is functioning and I pick up the phone, I don’t think they will give the information to me which actually they should. I can file the same thing through the RTI and get the information. I think the mindset shift hasn’t still happened. In that sense, the perception (about the bureaucracy) remains the same.
On marginalised sections and their willingness to use the RTI act.
For the people from the marginalised sections, let’s say people living in the slums, the RTI is pretty much the only means to get their work done or even get any kind of response from the government. Another thing is that the means of grievance redressal in our country have completely broken down. You can file 100s of complaints on a drainage that’s not clean, asking for it to be cleaned, nothing will happen. You file one RTI and that’s the first chance to get a response from the government department or even someone to do the work. For the lower classes RTI is not a fancy alternative to other means. I think it’s the only way for them. I think in the upper middle class people try other alternatives. So for instance a road is dug up, if the government doesn’t do anything, the neighbours will come together and say let’s pitch in 20,000 or so amount each and get it fixed. That can also work only to an extent vis-à-vis local development. You can’t do it for law and order and all other services like water, electricity, health etc. So, one doesn’t have to talk much about the effectiveness of the RTI. One is not unrealistic when talking to them, telling them that filing an RTI doesn’t necessarily mean that their ration will come. It doesn’t even mean that the information will come. So we say that since there is no grievance redress mechanism where you have the right for grievance redressal in a time bound way, here is an act where you have the chance to appeal. So people who are at the margins have no option but to use the RTI act which is not the easiest thing to do.
On RTI act and impact on public participation and engagement with bureaucracy.
In terms of people’s participation in government affairs, I think that’s where we have seen the most powerful change in the affairs and that’s probably because in that interaction, earlier the person would be completely uninformed and the government had all the information. Information is power in that sense. So anytime that the government did not want to address an issue, they would say that they don’t have money or that if they have money, it’s in the policy that they can’t spend it. That’s where we see the most empowering change. Today people go armed with information. So if people go to their MLA and say that they don’t have water or street lights and the MLA says that he doesn’t have funds, and that he wishes to do something but doesn’t have the money or can’t do anything, people can file RTI and say that the MLA has Local Area Development Fund and question why they can’t spend it on their needs like he is supposed to. I think that’s been the biggest impact and I think that’s also what has troubled the government the most. Because earlier, the government could get away figuratively with murder, and ignore large parts of our country and population. Today they can’t do that because people will question. People will ask, is there no policy for Dalits living in slum bastis, is there no policy for justice for women who are facing domestic violence and that is what has really changed. Today people can say that this is what they have actually found out that the government can do, so why there is no action or implementation. To break it down on the most basic level, today people can look into any government office. Before this you couldn’t even walk in to a government office as the guard would stop you from entering. I have seen thousands of interactions where people are demanding something but the person on the other end flat out denies that they will do anything and then the people would say that they will file an RTI. That is really in a sense citizens understanding citizenship, standing in a place of rightful power, standing in places and rightfully demanding what is theirs.
On allegations of misuse of the RTI act.
Like any other tool, it can be used and misused. I think the biggest disservice that the government did to itself and to the law was that soon after the law was passed, they started talking at length about its misuse. Even today if you talk to government officials in personal interactions you will hear at length about the number of misuses prevalent. But you ask them how many such RTIs do they receive. And that is what reveals the real picture. Our estimates suggest that 4 to 6 million RTIs are submitted each year. We have been taking these kinds of assessment because the government does not do a good job in assessing how the RTI law is functioning. In parliament when someone asks how many RTIs are filed, the government has no idea. It relies on our figures. The issue of misuse started as soon as the law came in. Then from 2009 onwards, till 2010, 11, 12, we even heard the PM saying that a lot of frivolous and vexatious RTIs are being filed. Bureaucracy’s time is being wasted a lot. To the extent that they said that they will amend the rules in 2012 saying that frivolous and vexatious RTIs cannot be filed. But every time we would ask them how many such RTIs are there. And they would say that someone told them that one such RTI has come. So that means that in face of one such RTI, thousands of those other RTIs mean nothing, singling that one out as if that is the norm, when it is not so. Finally in order to challenge the government we filed RTIs across the country and accessed 20,000 such application. We did this randomly. Out of this sample of 20000 RTIs, on our assessment we found, even by the most liberal definitions of frivolous and vexatious, less than 1% were found to fit that description. Now, when there is less than 1%, “misuse” of the law, then that is not the grounds for changing the law. That is not the norm and that does not justify the PM time and time again making such statements. It’s not just the PM, even last year Kiren Rijiju tweeted that someone has filed an RTI which said that if there is an alien or zombie attack in India, then is India ready for it. He tweeted that and said that these are the kind of RTIs that they are getting. Now that’s a total lie and I can say that with full confidence. Those are not the kind of RTIs that they get. That’s an aberration. That is less than one percent and it is highly unethical and irresponsible for people in high public offices to single out one such case and then show that as a generic use. And let me also say that this is not new to RTI. Any law which empowers people and empowers marginalised sections, we find such things are being done. Let’s look at domestic violence law, the anti-dowry law. There are number of stories that you can hear of misuse. But compare that to the number of women who suffer, who even die due to dowry deaths, that number is nothing in comparison. We were recently at the university of Limerick for a conference on transparency. A PIO from the UK had come and she said that they had received a similar RTI in 2007 which asked if UK was prepared for a zombie or an alien attack. We asked her how did you reply and she said we replied by giving them the evacuation plan for the city. Obviously there is no evacuation plan for an unknown catastrophe but we simply replied with the information that is applicable in such situations.
On how RTI act proves to be frugal rather than frivolous.
I really feel that government should actually study how much money the RTI is really saving them. For instance earlier nobody had an idea as to how the MLAs were spending their local area development funds. The first RTI that we filed in this area, we came to know that 70% of the funds were spent in making fountains in parks, that too in a water scarce area. So people were really mad that there is no water and they are installing fountains. Today if you look at the expenditure it’s all about school boundary walls and toilets for girls and toilets in the slums. I think the kind of improvement that RTI has brought in the public expenditure is undeniable. I think today they think thousand times before spending money on frivolous things because they think that tomorrow they will have to answer an RTI on the matter.
Earlier the government was of the thought that they will do what they want because it’s their money. I think that’s changed. Now people say that it’s our money and we will ask you what you did. It’s very embarrassing for them if there is no justification. I think RTI has actually prevented huge amounts of misuse of public funds and resources as a result of people using it. And we can ask about things as small as stationery, to petrol used in government cars to huge things. I think in terms of misuse government is absolutely on the wrong footing. We have challenged them time and again to give us their numbers, show us the RTIs, don’t talk about them if there are those three RTIs. And law provides adequate safeguards also. Law can’t obviously jail someone for an RTI but even if someone asks a question like why are their white fans in offices, you simply tell them the procedure for deciding on the fans and show them the tender, and that’s it. There is no use getting agitated about it. The best part is that someone filed an RTI in the PMO and asked what is the evidence to back up the claim that there is misuse of the law. The office replied we have no basis.
On the preparedness of Public Information machinery to deal with the RTI act.
Who is being made the PIO is important. So as in the case of MCD earlier at least there were assistant engineers or assistant commissioners who were being made PIOs. Today they will make a LDC (Lower Division Clerk) a PIO. They will make the most junior person in the office, the PIO. And why are they doing that is because if tomorrow a penalty is levied, it will be on him/her and not on us [the higher officers]. The problem with that is that person neither has an idea on what the RTI says, nor about how to go about it. Neither do they enjoy the kind of respect or position in the office where if they write a letter, like if the assistant commissioner writes a letter asking for giving him/her all the information, they immediately get the reply. An LDC writes a letter, nobody would reply. To the extent that in Jharkhand and Bihar, where we travelled for research on RTI, the clerk literally knows nothing about the RTI. The clerk says “I just have to take the application, give you the receipt. You even write your own name in the receipt book. I don’t know even how to write or read.” And I think that is really a way how the government has tried to push back on the law. I would even go as far to say, that some of our researchers have found that even the information commissioners are not well prepared regarding the law. For instance they would say that information is denied under section 7 (9). Section 7(9) does not give you the permission to deny information. They will say that the information is denied under the section 8(1j) and 8(1e) but they will not justify how this information overrides public interest. I don’t think it’s just a problem with the PIOs. I think it’s a problem across the board. I think Information commissioners need training, PIOs need training and FAA definitely need training.
On Information Commissioners and work being done by them.
Theoretically there is an appellate process but at the commission level people are being let down in a big way. The purpose of having the information commission was that it will be independent of the government. The government is the holder of information so obviously there is reluctance to share when somebody asks. The purpose of information commission is that it is neither the holder of information, nor a seeker so it will be neutral and it will work as per the law. We find that, that is not happening. The reason is, as our research finds, that 60% of the people appointed to information commissions are ex-bureaucrats. If you put those kind of people in charge of the commission, obviously that mind set is not going to change overnight. We had Chief of Intelligence Bureau as the Chief information commissioner. If the information commissions were to play their role properly in a lot of the cases where information is denied the orders would be overturned but today we are not finding it at the level it should be. I am not saying that all commissioners are bad. Some commissioners are doing pretty good job but on the whole there is a lot more desirable. We found that 50% of information was denied by commissions. Appeals and hearings were done illegally and when I say illegally it means that they were not done as per the provisions of the law.
On RTI act and its usage in people’s movements.
I think it’s a huge impact because earlier movements would also be struggling, like uninformed common people would be having struggle with the government. Name any movement and they would have all used the RTI: anti-Dam movement to the dalit movement. Right to food has used it, Dalit rights’ [activists] use it extensively especially to know how the budget which is earmarked for SC/ST sub-plan is being used. Women’s movement use it extensively. LGBT (movements) are using it. I mean I am hard pressed to think of a movement that doesn’t use it. Tribal movement uses it. Anti-nuclear movement has used it massively as well as environmental movements. I can’t think of any significant movement in the country that does not use it.
On RTI act and policy formulation and implementation.
I think the government today is aware that tomorrow there could be a query, so I think they are more careful to stick to rules. They are more careful about ensuring that everything is done as per the rules. On the flip side the government says that there are unable to take decisions. Just because you are not able to take decisions because you have to be accountable, I am glad that you are not taking those decisions. Because obviously they were not the right sorts of decisions to take. So I think that’s really improved policy implementation.
On RTI act and ways legislation is being done.
What we have been actually saying is that as per section 4 c and d of the RTI act which talk about proactive disclosure, in terms of pre-legislative consultations, we must put them out in public domain. The previous government even brought in a policy on pre-legislative consultations. I think with this government we have seen a rollback on some of those steps. So earlier, the government would actually put out some of the laws and drafts in the public domain. Here when they introduced the Whistle Blower’s Law, even the MPs did not know when it was introduced in the parliament. I think RTI was the step one. Now there is a whole channel of things that we need in terms of accountability including Lok Pal and grievance redress bill. But we need different aspect in the policy making, making sure that we take into account the feedback from the ground level.
On RTI act and media’s usage of the law.
I think, the news media has not utilised the RTI properly as a tool for investigative journalism. I think very few media houses other than Indian Express and Outlook have used it in a big way. I think that’s a huge loss. Journalists working on any story have not used it optimally. There are so many issues like disappearance of children etc. There is huge potential, which media hasn’t taken up. Why it hasn’t done so, if I had to hazard a guess would be because of ownership pattern. They might feel that filing an RTI would make it acrimonious against the government offices. But generally I think journalists are the biggest users of the law.
On RTI act and penalty provisions.
Penalty provisions in the law are very good but they are not being implemented properly. Our research found that in only 1.3% of the cases penalty was actually imposed on the total number of individual cases. I think the commissioners are not imposing the penalties the way they should. That’s why there is a large scale impunity vis-à-vis the RTI laws.