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Right to Information

Written by: Abhinav Srivastava - II Semester, B.A. LL.B (Hons.), National Law University, Jodhpur
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'Information' as a term has been derived from the Latin words 'Formation' and 'Forma' which means giving shape to something and forming a pattern respectively.
Information adds something new to our awareness and removes the vagueness of our ideas. Information is Power, and as the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee stated, "The Government wants to share power with the humblest; it wants to empower the weakest. It is precisely because of this reason that the Right to Information has to be ensured for all."

The Freedom of Information Bill 2000 was introduced in the parliament on 25th July 2000, there have been earlier instances where a proposition of the similar subject has been moved into the house, and this traces back to as early as in 1966 when the Press Council of India prepared the draft bill in order to secure the right to information then again in 1997 The Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad also prepared a bill, both these bill had initiated a debate on the national level and a working group was constituted which was to look in to the validity and the constitutionality of the bill. The report of this working group recommended that the right to information is not only feasible but also vital. The Working Group recommended that the bill should be named as Freedom of Information Bill as the Right to Information has already been judicially recognized as a part of the fundamental right to free speech and expression.

Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution guarantees the fundamental rights to free speech and expression. The prerequisite for enjoying this right is knowledge and information. The absence of authentic information on matters of public interest will only encourage wild rumors and speculations and avoidable allegations against individuals and institutions. Therefore, the Right to Information becomes a constitutional right, being an aspect of the right to free speech and expression which includes the right to receive and collect information. This will also help the citizens perform their fundamental duties as set out in Article 51A of the Constitution. A fully informed citizen will certainly be better equipped for the performance of these duties. Thus, access to information would assist citizens in fulfilling these obligations.

The Freedom of Information Bill 2000, stated mainly of access to the information by the public in almost all the governmental proceedings, it was proposed mainly in order to secure transparency in the government. In the democracy the best form of government or the good government is possible with the utmost level of transparency. National Stability is achieved when the public has full faith in their representatives because in the past 55 years of democracy in India, it has witnessed certain major ups and downs and one of the major cause of this was due to lack of transparency.

Another essential aspect that is been eating up our country politically, socially and economically is the increasing level of corruption, now-a-days even a peon is corrupt, this however does not imply that due to passing of the bill of the right to information would reduce the quantum of corruption at all levels but it definitely reduce the quantum of corruption at the higher levels because though corruption at all level is harmful but then the magnitude of corruption differs at different levels and the magnitude is much higher at the high levels. Of recent the Taj corridor scam including the Chief Minister, the Cabinet Minister (of the state), and high officials of the state government of a particular state were involved in the misappropriation of amount running into hundreds of crores. All this took place due to lack of transparency and the general public and the other concerned authorities were devoid of any information and nor that this has been the only scam in the history of our country, there have been various scams and most of them have been tried and have not seen the light of the day.

The Right to Information has already received judicial recognition as a part of the fundamental right to free speech and expression. An Act is needed to provide a statutory frame work for this right. This law will lay down the procedure for translating this right into reality.

Information is indispensable for the functioning of a true democracy. People have to be kept informed about current affairs and broad issues - political, social and economic. Free exchange of ideas and free debate are essentially desirable for the Government of a free country. In this Age of Information, its value as a critical factor in socio-cultural, economic and political development is being increasingly felt. In a fast developing country like India, availability of information needs to be assured in the fastest and simplest form possible. This is important because every developmental process depends on the availability of information.

Right to know is also closely linked with other basic rights such as freedom of speech and expression and right to education. Its independent existence as an attribute of liberty cannot be disputed. Viewed from this angle, information or knowledge becomes an important resource. An equitable access to this resource must be guaranteed.

Soli Sorabjee stressing on the need of Right to Information aim at bringing transparency in administration and public life, says, "Lack of transparency was one of the main causes for all pervading corruption and Right to Information would lead to openness, accountability and integrity".

According to Mr. P.B. Sawant, "the barrier to information is the single most cause responsible for corruption in society. It facilitates clandestine deals, arbitrary decisions, manipulations and embezzlements. Transparency in dealings, with their every detail exposed to the public view, should go a long way in curtailing corruption in public life."

This issue of the right to information is not a new concept it has already been taken up by one of the most prominent figures of our county Aruna Roy former Magsaysay Award winner and an IAS officer along with many eminent personalities such as columnist Ajit Bhattacharjee, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, environmentalist and teacher Shekhar Singh, writer Kuldip Nayar, activist Dunu Roy and Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan. They feel that availability of information helps in the good governance of the country. On one of the occasions in Delhi while Ms. Roy presented a piece of it read as follows, "We demand that the National Right to Information Act be passed immediately. The Act should be people-friendly and any information relevant to ordinary citizens should not be deemed an official secret. It should provide for punitive measures against non-complying officials. This will empower democratic processes and people's participation in governance" Simultaneously very significant development has taken place. The demand for Right to Information has taken the form of mass movement at the grass root level. A mass based organization called the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) took an initiative to lead the people in a very backward region of Rajasthan - Bhim Tehsil- to assert their right to information by asking for copies of bills and vouchers and names of persons who have been paid wages mentioned in muster rolls on the construction of schools, dispensaries, small dams and community centers. On paper such development projects were all completed, but it was common knowledge of the villagers that there was gross misappropriation of funds with roofless school buildings, dispensaries without walls, dams left incomplete and community centres having no doors and windows.

After years of knocking at officials' doors and despite the usual apathy of the State government, MKSS succeeded in getting photocopies of certain relevant documents. Misappropriation of funds was clearly obvious. In some cases, the muster rolls contained names of persons who either did not exist at all or died years before. This incident is more than sufficient to show the importance of the ability of information for eradicating mal-practices. With so many scandals emerging from time to time, it becomes vital for the management of public fund and survival of democracy.

MKSS organised a Jan Sunwai (People's hearing), the first ever in the history of Rajasthan. Politicians, administrators, landless labourers, private contractors were all invited to listen, respond and, if willing, to defend themselves. Popular response was phenomenal, but village officials and politicians stayed away and remained silent, and thereby weakened their position and darkened their image.

Between December 1994 and April 1995, several other public hearings were organized. People's anger made one engineer of the State Electricity Board to return in public an amount of Rs.15,000 he had extracted from a poor farmer. This grass root movement is fast spreading to other areas of Rajasthan and to other States establishing firmly that information is power and people should have the right to official information.

In early 1989, the then the Prime Minister Mr. VP Singh declared the attitude of the new Government on the Right to Information and transparent government. He said, "An open system of governance is an essential prerequisite for the fullest flowering of democracy. Free flow of information from the Government to the people will not only create an enlightened and informed public opinion but also render those in authority accountable. In the recent past, we have witnessed many distortions in our information system The veil of secrecy was lowered many a time not in the interest of national security, but to shield the guilty, vested interests or gross errors of judgments. Therefore, the National Front Government has decided to make the Right to Information a Fundamental Right.... A large area of information dissemination also relates to development programmes, their progress and their impact. This will need to be done at the Panchayat and Municipal levels, not only to encourage multi-level planning but also the common man in the villages."

Till now we have analyzed the situation from the side of the people only one question that is to be dealt with is that what is the harm in providing the information to the people the government can score high even if it passes this bill with certain restrictions, but then an important aspect that is to be kept in mind is that when the public has access to the important information then the nations sovereignty and integrity is at stake. We have seen in recent past that information which is mere necessary as to follow the model rules of conduct for gaining entry in the parliament of our country had posed major threat to the most important landmark of our country.

The government takes a major risk by revealing the information because first of all the Official Secrets Code Act, 1923 prohibits this and thus it is legislatively unconstitutional. The government can not possibly give information about its strategic sector and also the economic policy. There needs to be a line of demarcation between Official secrets and the information to be given to public. There need to be a balance between the Official Secrets code Act and the Right to Information.

Now the question arises that due to these recent upheavals about securing the right to information, what all information should be made public, now this is a very complicated task as there are certain avenues which fall in the category that whether information regarding then should be made public or no because the government may be in danger from both the ends. An example for this could be the Fiscal Policy of the government because that may lead to unfair practices by certain market players.

Thus it is utmost necessary that the government must strike a balance between the Official Secrets and the information to be delivered to the public. Strategic sectors have to be kept outside the purview of delivering the information to the public. Now a debate has been cropping up that there is a vast scale privatizing of the public sector, there has been privatizing of certain necessary services that were initially instituted for only public welfare schemes. Hospitals, educational institutes and even many transportation systems being privatized, there arises the need to make them transparent. The main fundamental principle of a private sector is to maximize their profits and for this many of these private players forget their business ethics and thus it is the public who has to suffer. Hence it is important to make information regarding these sectors available to the public as one of the essentials of the democracy is to ensure social and public welfare.
The need for Right to Information has been widely felt in all sectors of the country and this has also received judicial recognition through some landmark judgements of Indian courts.

A Supreme Court judgement delivered by Mr. Justice Mathew is considered a landmark. In his judgement in the state of UP vs. Raj Narain (1975) case, Justice Mathew rules-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. But the legislative wing of the State did not respond to it by enacting suitable legislation for protecting the right of the people.

According to Attorney General Soli Sorabjee - It was in 1982 that the right to know matured to the status of a constitutional right in the celebrated case of S P Gupta vs. Union of India (AIR) 1982 SC (149), popularly known as Judges case. Here again the claim for privilege was laid before the court by the Government of India in respect of the disclosure of certain documents. The Supreme Court by a generous interpretation of the guarantee of freedom of speech and expression elevated the right to know and the right to information to the status of a fundamental right, on the principle that certain unarticulated rights are immanent and implicit in the enumerated guarantees.

The court declared - The concept of an open government is the direct emanation from the right to know which seems to be implicit in the right of free speech and expression guaranteed under article 19 (1) (a).

The Supreme Court of India has emphasized in the SP Gupta case (1982) that open Government is the new democratic culture of an open society towards which every liberal democracy is moving and our country should be no exception. In a country like India which is committed to socialistic pattern of society, right to know becomes a necessity for the poor, ignorant and illiterate masses.

In 1986, the Bombay High Court followed the SP Gupta judgement in the well-known case Bombay Environmental Group and others vs. Pune Cantonment Board.

The Bombay High Court distinguished between the ordinary citizen looking for information and groups of social activists. This was considered a landmark judgment concerning access to information.

There are various states in India like Maharashtra etc which have adopted this right to information and they follow a simple clear cut laid out guidelines in order to secure the right to information to their citizens. One of the most fundamental aspect that this legislation should contain is that there needs to an utmost level of transparency, the government, if enacts this legislation it should not be full of conditions and ambiguity because that instead of bringing about the level of trust and faith in the public exchequer will instead create a sense of insecurity in the public. The government is free to decide as to what all avenues are not to be disclosed and accordingly in the short title of the said act, this must be made clear. The act must not be full of the "ifs" and the "buts" and nor it should have a condition allotted with every sub-clause. The act should be made keeping in the mind the mental framework of the public and also it should be made in order to cater to the public to secure its trust in the government agencies.

Thus all that can be said about this right of securing the right to information is that it is a very necessary legislation and the government must enact this legislation in order to secure the high levels of transparency in the affairs of the government and realize and give the true meaning of the word democracy.

The author can be reached at: abhinav_266in@legalserviceindia.com / Print This Article

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