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A STRUGGLE FOR RIGHT TO KNOW

RIGHT OF INFORMATION ACT

Dr. G.C. Banik, I.I.S. Ex-Chief General Manager (PR) Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited

A well informed citizenry, transparency and free flow of information are the foundations of a successful democratic society. It is against this background that the United Nations at a conference on freedom of information held in Geneva in 1948 made Universal Declaration of Human Rights. India was a signatory to that international convention on civil, political including freedom of information right.

Article 19 of the Universal Human Rights declares that `everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds through any media of his choice and regardless of frontiers'. In tune with the UN Declaration, as many as 40 countries like USA, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, Sweden, Australia provided a right of access to State held information either through discrete legislation or codes of practices on the subject, of course, to certain restrictions in the interest of the security of the nation.

In case of India Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution of India, guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression without any specific provision for right to know or right to information. In addition, the colonial Official Secrets Act, 1923 haunts Indians with Official secrecy of public information. Article 5 of his possession or control any note, document or information willfully communicates on any person other than a person to whom he is authorized to communicate, it shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine or with both. Therefore, there has been a battle not only for the right to information in India but also to amend the Official Secrets Act 1923 so that the people could get the right to the freedom of information to know about the policies and programmes of the Government.

Struggle
The people of Rajasthan in 1994 have pioneered the struggle on the right to information when the poor peasants in rural area first made a strong demand for the right to information. The initiative for this struggle came out of a process by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS) for the right livelihood. The slogans of campaigners were for the right to information in order to acces their basic necessities. 'Ham Jangenge, Ham Jiyenge' (the right to know, the right to live) and `Hamara Paisa - Hamara Hissab' (our money : our account). By placing their specific demand for copies of documents related to development works in their village in the context of the wider demand for the right to information, these rural campaigners had made the connections between information, democracy and issues of their survival were absolutely clear.

Dharna
A 40 day Dharna in Beawar in 1996 put forth an immediate demand for an amendment in the Panchayat laws to allow citizens to obtain certified photo copies of any documents in local self- Raj government offices. However, particular focus was placed on records of expenditure like bills, vouchers on muster rolls. Simultaneously, a demand was made for comprehensive law for the citizens right to information in all spheres of governance. This struggle has had a dramatic and salutary effect on the prevalent modes of brazen corruption.

Public Hearings
The process began with the public hearings 'Jan Sunwais' open platform on development expenditure of the State in Rajasthan, Ajmer and Bhalwara district articulated and the need for transparency and social audit of development expenditure. In fact, the demand for transparency in development expenditure of the State was a method by which the right to information could be realized. The `Jan Sunwais', had a multiplier effect. This was done through legal sanctity provided to public audits (social audit) in the Panchayat Raj Act. Implicit in this legal provision was the principle of the citizens right to audit all the activities of their local government.

The Mazdoor Kisan Shankti Sanghatan of Rajasthan as a pioneer in this field has exposed the `link' between the lack of transparency in the administration and corruption. The Right to Know movement started in Rajasthan had spread to other States like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh. In fact, the impact of the right to information has gone throughout India.

The Government of India had appointed a Working Group headed by H.D. Shourie on 2nd January 1997 to examine the feasibility and need to introduce a full - fledged right to Information Act so as to met the needs of open and responsive government. The Shourie committee submitted its report on 21st May 1997, when inter alia contained a Freedom of Information Bill 1997. The report was brought to the notice of the Chief Minister's conference.

Chief Ministers' Conference
In response to the public demand, the Conference of Chief Ministers' held on 24th May, 1997 discussed an action plan for effective and responsive Government at the Central and State levels. The conference resolved that the Central and State Governments would work together to initiate the action plan dealing with the following themes:

  1. Accountable and Citizen-friendly government
  2. Transparency and Right to Information; and
  3. Improving the performance and integrity of the public services

The Conference, among others, recommended that the Government of India would take immediate necessary steps in consultation with State Governments, for examining the report of the working group on right to Information and for introducing in the Parliament before the end of 1997, a legislation for Freedom of Information and amendments to the relevant provisions of the Official Secrets Act, 1923. (after 50 years of Indian Independence Government resolved to have citizen-friendly government).

In 1996, the Press Council of India, then headed by Justice P.B. Sawant drafted the right to Information bill. The Press Council of India model Bill and the H.D. Shourie committee's draft Right to Information Bill paved the way for both the Central and State Governments to enact the Freedom of Information Bill. A number of States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka enacted the right to Information legislation.

Supreme Court
However, the Government of India, drafted the Freedom of Information Bill in 1998 and there was a great deal of suspense before it was introduced in the Parliament. It languished in the Select committee of the Parliament and the final push came in the form of a Supreme Court directive in November, 2002 which said that the legislation should be passed before the next hearing of the case in January 2003. that was how the Freedom of Information Act 2002 was passed. But the 2002 Act was not notified and as such it did not come into effect.

When the United Progressive Alliance Government was formed in 2004 with Dr. Man Mohan Singh as Prime Minister, it has included in the Common Minimum Programme and it was decided to redraft the 2002 Act. The new Freedom of Information Act 2005 (No. 22 of 2005) as passed by the Parliament received the assent of the President of India on the 15th June, 2005. This Act came into being all over India from 12th October, 2005

RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT
What is the use of right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the article 19(1)(a) of the constitution of India, when the people do not have the right to know or the right to information in a democratic policy. It was against this background, there was a fight for the freedom of information not only to amend the colonial Official Secrets Act of 123 but also to accord people's access to the official information.

Political coup
Though the political leadership was in favour of the people's struggle for the freedom of information, the bureaucracy which is based on the British frame of administration was a stumbling block in this struggle as their power will be at stake, As the `Seminar' July 2005 issue said "while the passage of the RTI law was expected, the law in its strong radical current form has amounted to `democratic coup' of sorts - a `political coup', where a section of the top political leadership mustered up the requisite political will to ensure its passage; a `bureaucratic coup' where those practiced in legalese including former bureaucrats used their expertise to plug crucial loopholes; and "an activist coup where those practiced in legalese, including former bureaucrats, used their expertise to "plug crucial loopholes; and an activist coup with the delightful anachronism of groups of illiterate villagers not only leading a campaign for an RTI Law but also demonstrating its efficacy". In sum, `political coup' prevailed over the bureaucratic negative attitude in getting the Right of Information Bill passed.

As such, the Government, after 58 years of independence gave the citizens the right to know with the Right to Information Act 2005 which came into force from October 12, 2005. In view of this Act, the freedom of Information Act 2002 has been repealed. It extends the whole India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370 of the Constitution of India envisages that matters in respect of Jammu and Kashmir needs the approval of that State Government. The State of Jammu and Kashmir, therefore passed a separate Right to Information Act in January, 2004.

New Era
The right to Information Act 2005 marks a new era in the dissemination of public information of our country not only to enlighten the citizens but also make them as active partners in the successful functioning of the largest democracy in the world.

Objectives
It is the main objective of this Act to set out the practical regime of Right to Information for the 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 and to contain corruption. It also provides for the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for maters connected therewith function as autonomous bodies and to oversea the implementation of the Act.

Legal Sanctity
A legal sanctity has been given to the Right to Information under this Act with demarcating duties of public authorities and appointment of Public Information Officers in every administrative unit.

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