Excerpts from an interview with Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information and founding member of Satark Nagarik Sagathan (SNS) by Sumit Chaturvedi. (Edited for grammatical coherence).
On the status of Right to Information as a fundamental right and the role of RTI act in guaranteeing it.
RTI is a fundamental right. It flows from the article 19 of the constitution. But there were always problem in exercising that right. All that the law does is to give a framework and a process for being able to exercise that right. The problem is that just saying that it’s a right is not enough and often laws are required to layout a process through which those rights can be accessed. The law does provide mechanisms to ask for information and procedures for it to be provided.
On what has changed due to the mechanism laid down by the RTI act in accessing information.
Earlier if somebody went to a government department and asked for information the department could deny the information. It was not clear what was exempt and what was not. Secondly, they could divert someone to other offices and make them run from pillar to post for the information asked. There was no one to hold accountable for giving the information. Thirdly there was no clear timeline for information to be provided. Moreover if they didn’t give the information or gave the wrong information, there was no appeal process or penalty. What the law does is that it fixes all of these issues. It clarifies what is exempt and what is not. Secondly now there is a designated public information officer who can’t make you run around. Thirdly there is a time frame, so the PIO can’t keep sitting on my application. Further if one doesn’t get a satisfactory response, one can go for an appeal and it gives you the penalty provision as well. Thus the law is providing a framework so that you can exercise your right.
On the change, if any, in the nature of RTI applications which have been filed all through these years.
One thing was very clear that the RTI law was just a law to get information. So, no one expected for it to do much beyond that. But if we look at the larger picture of transparency the hope was that a more open and more transparent government would result in automatic improvement in systems. It’s not like that there haven’t been systemic changes, but not the kind of changes that one expected the RTI to bring. Therefore what we find is that people are still filing the kind of applications that they were filing before. For instance initially, a very large number of applications were being filed under the RTI by people who were not getting their rations or not getting their pensions and if the government actually took those applications seriously, where they analysed those applications and observed the failure in service delivery, they would understand that it is systemic breakdown. They would use that as a feedback and fix their systems. They would try and understand as to why ration is not being delivered and where is the corruption exactly. They would try and censure the officials who are involved in this and also try and understand why is the grievance redress mechanism not working. Why are people having to file RTIs; why are they not filing complaints. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. As a result very often it’s the same kind of RTI applications that people keep filing.
But at the same time this phenomenon is in some ways also a testimony to the success of the law. It’s not like anyone has spare time on their hands, that even if the act is not helping them, they will still keep filing it. The reason that people keep filing RTI and that there are a total of 6 million applications filed every year in the country, according to our research, is that when we file RTI we get a response. When we file RTI, often at an individual level your work gets done. That’s a very big thing in itself. But the systems are not improving.
I am not saying that openness and transparency hasn’t caused positive effect but the kind of changes that one had anticipated have not always been brought about. The reason is that the government hasn’t seriously taken the RTI as a feedback mechanism. They haven’t analysed the RTI applications. That needed to be done so that eventually changes could be brought about to the system to improve it. It also shows that institutional mechanisms for tackling corruption, whether you call it the Lokpal for big ticket corruption or the grievance redressal bill that was needed to bring about changes at the lowest level up to the top are not being brought about. Therefore RTI has been used by people and very effectively used, but the nature of the applications have not changed.
On RTI act as a feedback mechanism.
Our honourable prime minister, (Narendra Modi) once at a CIC convention said some very nice things. He said RTI is in a way almost like a barometer. That if someone sits and analyses these RTI applications, which was exactly the thing we were saying, then they will find out [inadequacies] in one’s own department. That if it was up to him, he would sit and study them and we will come to know what all shortcomings are there, and he can fix them.
We filed RTI applications after his speech also to see whether anything happened but nothing did. The government is not looking at it as a feedback mechanism. They are not analysing those applications. They are still trying to somehow cover things up if they have to give information and if they don’t want to give information then they delay it. They are looking at it as an obligation that has to be borne and not as a systemic resource which could have been used for better governance. It is an absolute direct feedback from the people. Imagine that if some government receives 4 to 6 lakhs RTI applications, and our research shows that most of these applications are filed by the poorest and the most marginalised, is there any way in the country at present through which we can reach out to the most poor and marginalised and get their feedback by talking to them or have it in written? RTI can be seen, if the government is intelligent and committed, as the ultimate consultation exercise. But it’s not being done.
On preparedness of information officers and system of maintaining information.
To implement the law, the people responsible for implementing the law must have understanding of the law. We sit and research as to what supreme court is saying. What all they have said in which cases of RTI. Why can’t the government make sure that the PIOs know about all the orders related to RTI. If there are IC (Information Commission) orders related to RTI, the PIOs should know about it. There is no proper concerted effort that the governments are making in this respect.
What the RTI law also does is to expose where the government is not maintaining records as it should. If you don’t even record it, how will you work on the issue, how will you make policies on the issue, how will you do everything that’s needed to ensure the protection is given to everyone who deserves it. RTI is a tool. It helps get information but sometimes not getting information is also very revealing because it actually tells you what the problems are, whether it is information that vested interests don’t want you to have or is it information that government is not keeping at all or is it information that was eaten by mice or they didn’t properly keep the records. Then that raises questions over the system of record maintenance. What has happened to your system of e-governance? Are they not ensuring computerisation of records that they are supposed to do? So it’s a whole range of issue that it is connected with.
On impact of RTI act on implementation of different laws and policies and citizen engagement.
Initially when RTI law was passed in Delhi, we went into slums and we told them that it’s a great legislation and they should use it. So one of the women in the meeting said “We don’t get ration, what will we do of information?” and we realised that people are not interested in information for the sake of information. There are very few academics who look for information for the sake of information for the sake of their research. Most people are interested in information if it links up with the other rights, other entitlements and the fact that they are not getting it because of corruption or wrong doings or abuse of power. There is a law today on food security but people don’t get ration only. So when it is said that people are using RTI law, the experience is unique in many ways because journalists are not using RTI as much but there is a vibrant use of the law because people are using it. Which is why in some sense it is so critical for deepening of democracy. It’s a tool which actually helps the citizens to engage. There are thousands of laws in the country and people could very well not know about them. Even if they knew about them, they might not get any rights under them but when people file RTIs they can actually know what is happening in the government which is what helps them engage meaningfully and that’s how you engage in a democracy.
On the usage of RTI act by civil society groups.
All of us were working on the issues that we were working on even before the RTI. For instance it’s not like the Narmada Bachao Andolan was not working before the RTI. Civil society groups were very active. What the RTI does is that it gives them an additional tool, to carry forward the struggles that they are involved in and help people be armed with information so that they can carry forward their struggles. So in that sense civil society groups have now been able to connect with people such that they can now help them access information from the government and hold the latter accountable. And of course there are some organisations that have come up which are only focussed on the RTI. But for me it is a larger issue which is that the RTI is a fundamental right, which cuts across issues, cuts across themes, cuts across rights, other rights, other laws.
Even for civil society groups like ours it is very difficult to know what laws are passed, where do you get a copy of it, unless it is available somewhere. Can you imagine that we are talking about laws that are made for the people, that are to be used by the people, for the benefit of the people and people don’t even know that these laws are being passed, let alone them knowing what right do they have in it and whether they are getting those rights. Which is why we always said information is power. What the RTI is doing is that it is finally bringing people that power. Because till now this information was just with a few people and now that information could be distributed down the line and that redistribution of information is actually leading to redistribution of power.
On status of proactive disclosure under section 4 of RTI act.
If you look at it today, there is nothing to suggest that in 12 years (up to 2017) the level and quality of section 4 disclosure has gone up that much. If there is political will and proper commitment by the government, then they have the where with all to have a lot more proactive disclosure than they have at the moment, a great deal lot more. And that is what needs to pushed. It needs to be pushed by citizens, it needs to pushed through pronouncements of the adjudicators like information commissions and courts and it has to be pushed through progressive people within the government.
On the impact of information on electoral democracy.
One of the things that SNS has done is to look at how our elected representatives work. People with whom we work said “Babu’s information we get, how do we get the information on the leader?” And the RTI says very clearly that you get information about executive, judiciary and the legislature. We have been involved with the work to see how our elected representatives are performing. We bring out report cards on how the elected representatives, MLAs, councillors, MPs work and we disseminate that information amongst people and so on. Finally what we understand is that elections and electoral choices are made on various factors like caste, religion and everything else. But what is equally true, and what we have understood through our work with people, is that there is an interest among the people on performance also. There was a group called JPAL which also did an assessment on our report card exercise and they showed, how in areas where report cards were distributed as opposed to areas where they were not distributed, there was a 4% increase in voting. So, the people understood the importance and the relevance of their elected representatives. And people seem to be voting in favour of people who were doing the work that they wanted them to do. So in areas where for example the MLAs were working for the benefit and spending the money for the benefit of slum dwellers they did get a higher percentage of votes. But like I said it’s a very complex phenomenon. We need to make sure however that whoever is voted into power is finally held accountable. I mean people come with the best intentions or don’t come in with the best intentions but finally they are going to occupy those seats of power. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In such a scenario how do you help people? You can only do that by having them informed. And we have seen that when people are informed they use information as a currency to interact and then leverage their vote and the fact that they have that vote, they show their elected representatives their place.
On RTI act and moving beyond electoral democracy to participatory democracy.
Wherever there is power there needs to be accountability. So if today it is Mr. Modi and yesterday it was Dr. Manmahon Singh and I might have voted for neither of them or both of them, it doesn’t matter. The point is that today whoever is my prime minister, occupying that position, has to be answerable to me, has to make sure that they work in a manner which is aligned with the constitution, the values of the country, the principles; that the laws are being followed, implemented, whoever it might be. That’s what democracy is. Democracy is not about whoever I want should come to power. It gives me the possibility of casting my vote and I have a chance that whoever I want should come to power, but it’s much beyond that. RTI takes democracy from a purely representative form to a participatory democracy. And that’s what we are interested in. We are interested in participatory democracy. Because using your vote you can make anyone sit in power, even if they don’t meet some golden standards.
On RTI act and public’s engagement with the system.
If one were to look at what the RTI does, the objective and result of it in many ways is enhancing participation of the people. Like I said information in itself doesn’t mean very much. But accessing information so that you can participate in governance whether it is for your own self or it is for the community, or it’s for a larger policy level, you are accessing information so that you can engage. So to that extent I feel that all the 6 lakh people who are asking for information every year are engaging in some form or the other, with the government. It’s helping enhance that engagement. Because somebody sitting somewhere is saying “If this did not happen then how should it have happened?” People are engaging and it’s just increasing participation of the common people of our country, the ordinary citizens in democracy. Because just being able to vote once in every five years is not democracy.
On RTI act and demand for other rights and laws.
The RTI has in many ways been a precursor for demand for many laws for accountability. The demands for accountability laws such as Lokpal, the grievance redressal law, the whistle-blowers’ protection law, judicial accountability law and a lot of these laws have actually come up when people have asked for information. Asking for information revealed that there is a lot of corruption but when you made a complaint that corruption is prevalent, there is no body to take action. Your complaint on corruption will be looked at by the CBI which is under the control of the government. So when it will be in government’s interest they will carry it forward and when it’s not they will shut it down. So the demand for the Lokpal came from the people who had been associated with the RTI movement and the organisations that have been associated with the RTI. Similarly there should be a law for the protection of whistleblowers also. That demand has also come up from RTI activism. The fact that more than 60 people have been killed so far who were asking for information and using it shows that there was a need for such a law (Whistle Blower’s Protection Bill). Similarly for grievance redress bill, the very fact that so many people are losing their precious times, losing their wages in going and filing RTI applications, it’s because the mechanism of our government is so broken and pathetic that what people should get directly, they are not getting it and no action is being taken.
On impact of RTI act on the feudalistic mindsets in India (especially rural areas).
Changing of mindsets of the bureaucracy and the government officials is a challenge but so is even changing of mindsets of people. Because you see there is such a tremendous feudal system of functioning, such a tremendously secretive and opaque system of functioning that people are also not used to asking questions. There is a complete “mai-baap” culture. Even the MLA and the councillors are very shocked that people are asking them for information but people are also very shocked as to how are they supposed to demand information from them; that they can’t speak to them. Because it’s so ingrained. But I think that’s what RTI is supposed to do and that’s what it is doing. So when we say that it is redistributing power, it’s tilting the balance of power, the reason why it’s doing it is because it attacks and goes against all those feudalistic systems which we have so imbibed and are just so ingrained in us. They are supposed to work for us for which they are drawing salaries. They are not doing us a favour and of course they have to be answerable to me. Bureaucrats feel so exposed and wronged. Last year the MPs were standing on the floor of the house and saying that now “panwaaris” will ask us about our missile programmes and rocket technology. When you ask the panwaari for votes you don’t feel that his stature is small. When you collect tax from him you don’t feel that why should we. But when it’s time to give information that they are asking, then you have a lot of problems. This is a feudal mindset. And that mindset, it’s not that it only exists on that side. Even on this side people have been used to and it’s so ingrained that of course it’s very empowering for people. So they are very quickly taking that on wherever they can. But for the same reason there are attacks as well. Because if you are a Dalit and live in a village, where you have not even talked to someone while looking them into their eyes and now you are going and filing RTI and asking them questions, you might be beaten up. That’s also a way of ensuring that those social power structures don’t change. At the end of the day something like RTI is so fundamental. Because it has potential to impact all of this.
I sometimes feel what Ambedkar said that there is this contradiction because on one hand we have one person one vote and on the other hand we have these social scenarios. But I think because of RTI, despite these social and economic disparities, whoever you might be today you are equated to member of parliament. The most impoverished and the most poorly treated Dalit woman in some place who is perhaps doing manual scavenging, the law says that if some information cannot be denied to your member of parliament then that can’t be denied to her as well. So he or she or every citizen of the country is elevated on that status now.
On double standards of political parties on RTI act.
Even at a very crass level, the BJP had an RTI cell. When they were in the opposition they would keep filing RTIs. Even now there has been a judgment on an RTI by Manohar Parrikar, just recently. And interestingly enough the first thing they shut down when they came to power was their RTI cell. Because now why would they file RTI as they themselves are in power. Now RTI is inconvenient for them because it can hold them accountable. That’s what we are always saying that everybody loves transparency as long as they are not being asked to be transparent including the judiciary. If one asks judiciary even, they give great judgments, sterling judgments, that RTI is a fundamental right and corruption needs to be stymied but when it comes to asking them to reveal information about their assets, they say how can you ask information about that. If you ask them about other things, judiciary has a very terrible track record.
On use of RTI act among the most vulnerable sections.
Poor and marginalised are always the easiest to treat abrasively. If someone speaks fluent English and is educated and comes from a certain class to treat them badly, even in a feudal structure, is unheard of. We have many women, many people in the slums, who when asked for information they have been threatened, they have been attacked and cases have been filed against them. These kinds of threat, intimidation and feudalistic attitudes of course deter people from filing RTI. Many people say that they won’t file RTIs anymore but because it is so empowering they still come back to file. Because they understand that “what do we have to lose”. They think “what else will they do. They will kill us, right?” There is no ration to feed the children or ourselves, so what else can we do. So we see that there is a certain resilience and certain power with which people feel empowered with and despite threats or attacks they keep using the RTI. But it’s not that it doesn’t deter them temporarily. Right after filing RTI application you get a phone call. They (officials) know how to start this intimidating behaviour. If the person lives in a slum they would say that your slum is about to be destroyed or that your ration card seems to be bogus and will be cancelled. And in case of the most marginalised it’s a very interesting situation. They are the most dependent on the government services so they are also very quick to take on RTI despite its risks. They feel that at least through this they get some answer, some of their work is getting done. But also because they are the most poor and marginalised they are easiest to intimidate. So it works both ways. And I think that’s why collectives are very important because with these types of margnialised and vulnerable communities it’s important that they are able to come together.
On RTI act and the middle class.
The kind of dependence that the poor and marginalised have on the government services is a lot more than the middle class. But at the same time any number of applications are filed by RWAs and the middle class to understand what has happened to their roads etc. They have their own concerns. A lot of RTI applications are also filed by the middle class for larger issues of corruption. We do have the superusers of the RTI who will keep asking the questions. They will ask 2000 to 3000 questions. Why wasn’t this judge probed when they were elevated in status etc. All of these things are also critical. In democracy every kind of effort to bring in transparency is valuable and it can be at any level. It can be at the level of an individual where they are asking for information about their own problems, rights or entitlements or it could be at a systemic level. Everything comes from their own interests and their own point of views and to me everything is valuable and everything contributes to strengthening of democracy.
On RTI act and multi-dimensional democratisation.
If somebody keeps asking larger questions of policy or big ticket corruption, that’s not enough because what about the large number of people who are not getting their basic entitlements. But if only those questions are asked also that might not be sufficient. It has be to a case of thousand flowers blooming. For example there are so many times attempts to dilute the law and when we have protests, it’s not just the poor, it’s not just the middle income or the high income. Everybody comes out. Every body sees the value there. The ownership is there and that’s what makes it powerful because if it was just a middle class movement, everybody goes back to their work and it wouldn’t sustain. If it was just a struggle of the poor it will have its own weakness. The fact that it’s such a vast group of people, it makes it powerful.