Whilst there was a definite common agreement towards the need to raise more awareness about the Act itself, a lot of young people at The YP Foundation who have been working with precisely that mandate, questioned the larger strategic direction and purpose of simply awareness-raising in general. Our focus has been on the relevance of the act in one’s day-to-day life and the issues that it can be used for. Sometimes just filing an RTI on the little things or issues that we take for granted in our system and environment can act as a catalyst for change.
With over 60% of India’s population between the ages of 18 and 25, it is important that young people have a say and a stake in the way their country is run, more so since we are the future of the country. Voting during elections is one of the easiest ways to ensure political participation, but is the casting of a ballot an end in itself or is it only the beginning of political consciousness and participation? Isn’t it our responsibility as well as right to ensure better governance? After all, participation in governance is the core concept of any successful democracy.
42% of the Indian population lives on less than $1 a day (World Bank estimates). The Government of India spends thousands of crores every year on various schemes that are aimed at reducing poverty. Yet in 2004-05, poverty rates in India reduced by just 0.8% (NSS estimates). Why aren’t poverty levels reducing? Where is the money going? Who is accountable for this money?
The Right to Information Act, 2005 is a major tool provided by the Government of India to ensure government transparency and accountability and encourage public participation. The Act recognizes that in a democracy, information related to government functioning should ideally belong to the people. Citizens have every right to know how public authorities spend their tax money. The RTI Act grants citizens the right to ask for and be provided with information about the work of government-run and supported bodies within thirty days.
The Constitution of India does not specifically mention the Right to Information as a fundamental right, but it has been recognized by the Supreme Court of India as an integral part of the ‘Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression’ as well as the ‘Right to Life’. A recent study by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information Movement that led to the passing of the Act in 2005, revealed that only 33% of the urban population is aware of the RTI Act. In light of this fact and the amendments that have been proposed by the current government to reduce the scope of the Act, it is important that one realizes the importance of the Act, and start using it as a tool to hold one’s government accountable.
The YP Foundation in collaboration with UNDP, SPIL, CHRI and Governance Now recently presented a forum titled- ‘From Exploring the RTI Act to Building a Movement- Do Young People Matter?’. The forum was the culmination of a year’s worth of community training with young people across the NCR on how to use the RTI Act. The point of the forum was to bridge some of the isolated conversations that as young people, we had been having. To bring together young people who have been working with The RTI Act over the past year with people from the RTI Movement in Delhi itself, to explore how young people can get further involved with the issue. Have a look at the video we uploaded on You Tube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXady_R9of4 – it explains more about the project and what we have been working on.
The discussion really looked at where the RTI movement stands today, focusing on the need for raising awareness levels about the Act amongst the public, to the victimization and threat to those who utilize the Act as well as the future of working with Proactive Disclosure. The panel featured Mr. Raj Liberhan, Director of the India Habitat Center, Mr. Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner, Mr. Shekhar Singh, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, Mr. Venkatesh Nayak, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Ms. Yamini Aiyer, Accountability Initiative, Ms. Manju Sadarangani, U.S. Embassy and Ms. Pallavi Kaushal from The YP Foundation.
Governance Now covered the forum at http://www.governancenow.com/gov-next/rti/rti-and-power-youth. Whilst there was a definite common agreement towards the need to raise more awareness about the Act itself, a lot of young people at The YP Foundation who have been working with precisely that mandate, questioned the larger strategic direction and purpose of simply awareness-raising in general. Our focus has been on the relevance of the act in one’s day-to-day life and the issues that it can be used for. Sometimes just filing an RTI on the little things or issues that we take for granted in our system and environment can act as a catalyst for change.
The need for proactive disclosure or adherence to Section 4 of the Act was also brought up and discussed. The Act requires every public authority to computerize their records for wide dissemination and to proactively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally. This directive is not followed by a number of authorities even today.
The recent cases of death of RTI activists and applicants have thrown negative light on the use of the RTI. A participant at the forum highlighted this point as well, sharing he was threatened by MCD officials when he filed applications asking for information regarding an illegal construction at Shahdara. He said he had filed a complaint with the Central Information Commission. Nothing explains or justifies such criminal intimidation. Such incidents and circumstances discourage citizens from using the RTI, however, one solution to this issue, as suggested by a number of people at the forum, including Mr. Venkatesh Nayak from CHRI, is to publicize it as much as possible and get multiple people to file applications on the same issue, thus reducing the risk, as opposed to just one person fighting it out. The Chief Information Commission, Mr. Habibullah, who was also part of the panel, promised to look into the matter. A month later, we hear through the media that two of the three MCD officials who threatened the applicant have been arrested, after approaching Mr. Shailesh Gandhi, the Central Information Commissioner and seeking his help. You can read the recent newspaper report at - http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/2-MCD-officials-held-for-threatening-RTI-applicant/articleshow/5837950.cms.
Over the year we’ve done a series of facilitative discussions cum workshops in NCR and we’re still very positive about the use and scope of the RTI. Cases and incidents where the RTI has been used as an effective medium to seek redressal and ensure corrective measures are taken over a variety of issues only encourages one to use it more.
We’re currently in the middle of evaluations and strategic planning for the months ahead- trying to look at where we want the project to head and what kind of impact we’re looking to make. If nothing else, our belief in the relevance and importance of the Right to Information has only increased over the past year.
The Act is a provision made by the government to encourage transparency as well as people’s participation, but the key to the Act’s success lies in the hands of the people for whom it has been enacted. We must not be hindered by the attempts made by certain authorities/individuals to curb the outlet of information that rightly belongs to the public. After all, as specified earlier, it is our fundamental right.
The Right to Information Branch