Right to Information : An Overview
India is a democratic country. The head of the country is elected by the people of the country. The Government of the country possesses the authority to work for the welfare of the country on behalf of the people. The final decision making power regarding the welfare of the country is in the hands of Government.
The people of the country want to know how the government is functioning. People have many questions regarding the functioning of the government. So, to answer all the questions of the people, the Parliament passed a new Bill known as “The Right to Information Act, 2005”. The Bill was presented in Parliament on 22nd December, 2004. After intense debate till 15th June, 2005, it was finally passed on 15th June 2005 and came into force on 12th October, 2005. The Right to Information Act aimed at ensuring transparency in the functioning of Central & State Governments. The Act provides for setting out the practical regime of right to information for the people to secure access to information under the control of public authorities to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions have been constituted for this purpose.
Before passing of this Act, Disclosure of Government Information in India was governed by a law enacted during the British rule named as Official Secrets Act of 1889 which was amended in 1923. After 1923, it has taken India 82 years to transition from an opaque system of governance, legitimized by the colonial Official Secrets Act, to one where citizens can demand the right to information.
The Right to Information is derived from our fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. It says, “All the citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.” The main idea is that if the people do not have any information regarding the functioning of the Government and public institutions, then people cannot express any informed opinion on it. In a system of democracy where citizens being at the centre of government – rule of the people. For such a democracy to function, Freedom of Press is necessary to be understood first. The main reason for a free press is to ensure that the citizens are informed. Thus, it clearly flows from this that the citizens’ right to know is paramount.
Supreme Court on the Right to Information as a Fundamental Right:
In a famous case of State of UP v. Raj Narain, Justice Mathew ruled, “In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security”.
In Bennett Coleman Case, the right to information was held to be included within the right to freedom of speech & expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a).
In S. P. Gupta Case, the right of the people to know about every public act, and the details of every pubic transaction undertaken by public functionaries was described.
The Right to Information has been recognized as a fundamental human right, which upholds the inherent dignity of all human beings. The Right to Information forms the crucial underpinning of participatory democracy. It is essential to ensure accountability and good governance. The greater the access of the citizen to information, the greater the responsiveness of government to community needs. Alternatively, the more restrictions that are placed on access, the greater will be the feelings of ‘powerlessness’ & ‘alienation’. Without information, people cannot adequately exercise their rights as citizens or make informed choices.
The free flow of information in India remains severely restricted by three factors:
a. The legislative framework includes several pieces of restrictive legislation, such as the Official Secrets Act, 1923;
b. The pervasive culture of secrecy and arrogance within the bureaucracy; and
c. The low levels of literacy and rights awareness amongst India’s people.
The primary power of RTI is the fact that it allows the individual Citizens to requisition information. Hence, without necessarily forming pressure groups or associations, it puts power directly into the hands of the foundation of democracy – the Citizen.
The new law passed by Parliament places India among the 55 countries to have such legislation. The Act provides the citizen the right to seek information on many matters but not on all matters. It does not permit citizens to seek information of certain matters affecting security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the country. It gives citizens a legal right to be informed about utilization of public funds, progress reports of ongoing projects, state circulars, contracts, etc.
Definition of Right to Information:
The right to information is defined in Section 2(j) of the Act which means the right to information accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority & includes the right to –
(i) inspection of work, documents, records;
(ii) taking notes, contracts or certified copies of documents or records;
(iii) taking certified samples of material;
(iv) obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device.
Procedure of Application & Publication of Request:
The Act & its rules define a format for requisitioning information, a time period to provide information, method of giving information & some exemptions when no information can be requisitioned:
Section 4 of the Act makes a duty of public authorities to maintain records for easy access & to publish within 120 days the name of the particular officers who should give the information & in regard to frame rules, regulations, etc. Under the Act, all authorities covered must appoint their Public Information Officer (PIO).
Section 6 of the Act provides that any person can submit the request for information in Hindi or English or in official language of the area accompanying prescribed fee without assigning any reason for the request or any personal details except his name and contact particulars. Such a request shall be made to:
(a) the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, of the concerned public authority;
(b) the Central Assistant Public Information Officer or State Assistant Public Information Officer, as the case may be.
It is the obligation on the PIO to provide information to the person requesting for such information under the Act. If the request pertains to another public authority (in whole or part), it is the PIO’s, it is the PIO’s responsibility to transfer/forward the concerned portions of the request to a PIO of the other area within 5 days.
In addition to this, every Public Authority is required to designate Assistant Public Information Officers (APIOs) to receive RTI requests and appeals for forwarding to the PIOs of their public authority.
Section 7The Act specifies time limits for replying to the request:
· If the request is made to the PIO then the reply must be given within 30 days of the receipt of request on payment of prescribed fees.
· If the request is made to the APIO, then the reply must be given within 35 days of the receipt of request on payment of prescribed fees.
· If the PIO transfers the request to another public authority (who is better concerned with the information), then the reply must be made in 30 days but the period must be computed from the day after it is received by the PIO of the transferee authority.
· When the information is relating to life or liberty of a person, the information shall be provided within 48 hours.
· Information concerning corruption and Human Rights violations by scheduled Security agencies (those listed in the Second Schedule of the Act) is to be provided within 45 days but with the prior approval of the Central Information Commission.
If the request is rejected then the rejection of request shall be communicated under Section 7(8) with valid reasons of rejection, specifying the procedure & proof for appeal & the designation of the appellate authority.
Section 7(9) says that information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.
It is mentioned that a fee of Rs. 10.00 is payable along with the application. In addition to this, a fee of Rs. 2.00 per page or Rs. 50 for CD etc. is also mentioned. If the applicant is Below Poverty Line, then no fee shall apply. Such a person has to provide a copy of his BPL Card along with the application to the Public Authority.
It provides certain exemptions when no request for disclosure of information shall be entertained as per the contents stated in sub-clauses (a) to (j) of Section 8. Sub-clause (b) exempts information, which is expressly forbidden by any court of law or tribunal or the dispute of which may constitute contempt of court. Sub-Clause (g) exempts information the disclosure of which would endanger life, or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purpose. Sub-clause (h) exempts information, which could impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders. Sub-clause (i) exempts Cabinet papers.
· The Right does not extent to Jammu & Kashmir or to security agencies like IB, RAW & BSF. File Notings by Bureaucrats won’t be made public under the Act
Section 20 of the Act has provided for penalties against Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be:
(i) If the concerned Public Information Officer refuses to receive any application or do not furnish information within the time specified in the Act or malafidely denies the request for information or knowingly gives incorrect or incomplete information then a penalty of Rs. 250 each day shall be imposed till information is furnished or received by the person. The total amount of penalty shall not exceed Rs. 25000.
(ii) The penal provisions are the strength of the Act, which ensure that the Public Information Officer does not treat citizens’ demands for information in a cavalier manner.
The Right to Information is derived from our fundamental right of Expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. If we do not have information on how our Government and Public Institutions function, we cannot express informed opinion on it. So, it is recognized as a very important right and people should avail and make good use of this right.
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