The RTI Act and You
“Information is the currency of democracy” quoted Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America. This means that democracy cannot survive if the citizens of a country are uninformed. Informed citizens are both more likely to be aware of their rights, as well hold the government accountable to its duties.
In India, there has long been a culture of passive acceptance of the government’s actions and policies. Inordinate delays in permissions or applications were considered standard, demanding explanations or information from the government was tedious at best and dangerous at worst. A solid wall of bureaucracy was put up between information seekers and the information they sought.
However, towards the turn of the century, things began to change. Several States such as Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Rajasthan, among others, enacted state level acts aimed at providing access to the public of government information such as statistics, budgetary allocations, and other information.
This was followed by the Freedom of Information Act in 2002, by the central government, and its eventual successor, the Right to Information Act which came into effect on 13th October 2005.
With this Act in place, any citizen can access information and documents belonging to the government and public authorities by simply submitting an application to the concerned department.
Today, even though the media has highlighted countless examples of how ordinary citizens have used the Act to help them claim their due, many of us are still not really sure about what the RTI actually is, which authorities fall under the act, what information we can get under it, and most importantly, how to file an application.
Very simply put, the act provides for citizens to “secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.”
There are many areas where you may like to seek information from any Public Authority.
For instance, you may like to know:
- What work orders are issued by State/Central Authorities?
- How elected representatives (MLA, MP, Corporator) use their funds allocated to them; how much are earmarked for specific projects; and how much has actually been spent?
- What is the status of your complaints with Public Authorities?
- How much has the local ration shop distributed from its stock?
- How have funds been spent by MHADA on your building or those of others?
- How have relief, subsidies etc., been distributed by the government?
It therefore becomes important for us to understand what exactly a “Public Authority” is.
According to the official RTI Guide issued by the Department of Personnel and Training of the Ministry of Personnel, a Public Authority is “any authority or body or institution of self government established or constituted by or under the Constitution; or by any other law made by the Parliament or a State Legislature; or by notification issued or order made by the Central Government or a State Government.
The bodies owned, controlled or substantially financed by the Central Government or a State Government and non-Government organisations substantially financed by the Central Government or a State Government also fall within the definition of public authority. The financing of the body or the NGO by the Government may be direct or indirect.”
This definition includes nearly all Government Departments, Ministries, PSUs, Local Bodies, and even NGO’s that are funded “substantially” by the government. While there are certain organisations (mainly intelligence agencies) that are not included under the scope of the act, it would be fair to say that almost all of the public organisations that we interact with on a daily basis are covered by the RTI.
The information that we can access includes documents and extracts, records, figures and statistics, and certified copies of documents, records, and samples of material.
This information may be inspected by you, or you may request for it in the form of printouts, tapes, other electronic formats. If you are inspecting the records, you are permitted to take notes.
The process of filing an RTI application is relatively straightforward, and can be found in our article here.
If you do not receive the requested information, or you feel that you have been provided the wrong information, then you can escalate the matter and appeal to higher authorities, as highlighted in our article here.
Some information however, is not allowed to be shared with the public. This is mainly to ensure that sensitive information that may be harmful to India’s sovereignty, or that may harm its relations with other countries does not reach the wrong hands.
Additionally, information that may lead to the incitement of an offence, that may endanger the life of any individual, or that may infringe upon the intellectual property of a person or company, is also not to be shared. Also, information whose publication is forbidden by the Court, and records of certain high level discussions like cabinet meetings are also not disclosed to the public.
A list of the specific organisations not covered under the RTI is available here.
Any information related to a third party, such as another government department, is also not accessible under the act unless it is felt by the Public Information Officer (the official designated to deal with RTI enquiries) that by giving the information, the greater public good is served. In such cases, the third party involved is given a chance to appeal the decision.
Even then, trade and commercial secrets protected by law are not covered under the Act.
Notwithstanding all these restrictions, the RTI allows us to demand information from even the most uncooperative officials due to the strict penalties they impose on delays and refusals from the government’s side.
To us, the real importance of this Act is not that scams worth thousands of crores can be exposed, but that even our poorest citizens can make their voices heard. Whether it is a destitute widow trying to find out why her husband’s pension isn’t reaching her, or a middle class housewife demanding to know where the funds for her neighbourhood playground have disappeared, the RTI Act has made change agents out of us all.
Some handy points to remember:
- You can only file an RTI if you are a citizen of India.
- Companies and other Legal Entities cannot file RTIs, but any employee can file one as a private citizen.
- If a person cannot make a request in writing, the Public Information Officer can assist them, especially in the case of elderly or disabled people.
- The information provided to you has to be made available in whatever form you desire unless it diverts the resources of the public authority or affects the safety and security of the records.
- To ensure that the request is processed promptly, the application should be correctly addressed to the department or undertaking directly concerned.
- The best way to fill out an RTI application is to focus only on one subject per application. This will help get your information faster since it saves the time of the Public Information Officer as well.
- Avoid any vague language in the request. If the Public Information Officer isn’t able to understand what exactly you want, they may give you the wrong information, or even no information at all.
- To help the public use the RTI properly, and partially to ease the burden on themselves as well, most Government Departments and Organisations covered under the RTI have useful RTI guides on their websites with details of the department, and particulars of the Information Officers and Appellate Authorities.
Source: This information was obtained from ‘Guide on Right to Information Act, 2005’ by the Government of India Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions Department of Personnel & Training, and information provided by the Mahiti Adhikar Manch.
Tags: Be Legally Aware