Illuminating Government’s Dusty Corners
Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of the Access to Information-team at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), has spent a career illuminating bureaucracy’s dusty corners. The most powerful tool he has at his disposal is the Right to Information Act, 2005 – a legislation that allows every citizen to query public authorities regarding information held in government’s files not made public.
The RTI Act, as it is commonly known, is a powerful democratic tool. It promotes democratic principles through more transparency in opaque government departments and encourages citizens to pursue public accountability. Although the RTI Act does not provide service delivery, in several cases, highlighting administrative faults has been enough to create change.
For example, in Gujarat, students were charged fees despite the fact the school was sufficiently subsidized by the government. Following an RTI application by a resident the school principal admitted he was not authorized to charge the fees. Importantly, the students stopped paying.
CHRI had reported this case. In addition to reporting, our partners promote the right to information through research, workshops and publications. They also developed a simple user’s guide that walks people through the process of filing an RTI, and educates them how they can use it. This year, CHRI released a revised version of the guide.
“Encyclopedia of RTI”
The road to the RTI Act has not been straightforward. Grassroots and civil society organizations have sought a national right to information law since the 1990s. However, no substantial progress was made until August 2004, when submissions by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, CHRI and others led to the Act we now know as the RTI Act.
Still implementation has left something to be desired. "Preventing the transparency regime from a rollback has been and continues to be a major challenge for the RTI community in India”, says Venkatesh Nayak, who like few others knows the ins and outs of the issue and who the FNF Regional Director Dr. Ronald Meinardus respectfully introduces as the “encyclopedia of RTI” in South Asia. At least four attempts to curb the efficacy of the law through regressive amendments have been thwarted successfully over the last 14 years, the CHRI activist adds. “Protecting citizens who use RTI from reprisals is a big challenge”, Nayak concludes.
Often authorities hold back information for illegitimate reasons. Reasons for this may include non-availability of officers, or exemptions that do not truly apply to the situation at hand, Information Commissions are understaffed, and the pendency of cases is high. CHRI’s handbook discusses the step-by-step procedure for filing appeals or complaints in such cases, and considers strategic ways to access necessary information and data. The hope is that when enough citizens are interested in the health of institutions such as the RTI and use them in their day-to-day lives, democracy will truly flourish.