In these times when nationalism has been perverted to mean obedience to the ruling government, it may not be fashionable to say what I am about to suggest. But I believe that the service our Right to Information (RTI) activists provide is comparable to the dedication of the soldiers guarding our borders—the latter protect us from enemies across the frontier, while the former protect us by ensuring our institutions and leaders are held to account, and that the health of our democracy remains robust.
Is the government suggesting that a question asked only necessitates a response if the questioner is alive? What matters is the question, which seeks to establish an objective truth...
In doing their duty and protecting ordinary citizens, RTI activists have suffered and even laid down their lives. In the past ten years, at least 56 activists have been killed and hundreds have been assaulted or faced threats of violence. It is not surprising—when power is held accountable to the law, there will always be those seeking to attack the questioner rather than deliver the answer. This is precisely why we must object and vociferously oppose the new government proposal that allows for the termination of an RTI application if the applicant has died.
As Anjali Bharadwaj wrote in her campaign to roll back this move, "Given the Indian reality where RTI applicants are often attacked and even killed for seeking information, the proposed rules will make it easier for people with vested interests to pressurise RTI users and threaten them to withdraw their appeals."
The need to protect our RTI activists is particularly strong now when the prevailing regime is hiding behind theatrics while a supine media shies away from asking tough questions. And falling by the wayside is accountability and the very principle of democracy. Earlier this week, for instance, an RTI activist unearthed a scam in the Indian railways that shows curd worth ₹25 being purchased for ₹972! The government has denied any scam in the procurement of food items.
Instead of following through to strengthen the RTI Act and protect applicants, the government is trying to dilute its provisions...
The RTI Act, 2005, was a huge improvement in transparency of governance. But instead of following through to strengthen the RTI Act and protect applicants, the government is trying to dilute its provisions, when it is, in fact, this that the government ought to be rectifying. They are watering down the point of RTI itself. The Centre is attempting to dilute information that can be obtained under the Whistleblower Protection Act and to restrict the type of situations in which whistleblowers receive protection. It is removing limits and disclosure requirements on how much companies can contribute towards political donations. In every sense, instead of making power transparent and bringing in light, the government is drawing curtains and darkening the room.
To cite one example, how is it that Reliance Industries could use Prime Minister Narendra Modi's image in its Jio advertisements? While the government said that the image was used without permission, what action was taken against Reliance? One activist who filed an RTI application enquiring about the guidelines concerning usage of the PM's image by a private business did not receive a response for four months! This when the time limit for getting a response to an RTI query is 30 days from the date that application has been submitted. In the end, it took three appeals to get the government to divulge information—information that is the right of every Indian citizen.
RTI activists... may not be gazing at foreign enemies but have to confront enemies within our own society...
And, what exactly is the point of closing an RTI application once the applicant is dead? Is the government suggesting that a question asked only necessitates a response if the questioner is alive? What matters is the question, which seeks to establish an objective truth based on facts, and not what condition the questioner might be in—for the well-being of the questioner, there is need for other legislation, which this government is not interested in.
We should also consider giving RTI activists greater cover by keeping the names and personal details of applicants confidential. The requested information should be in the public domain, assuming, of course, that the request is considered fair. In the UK's Freedom of Information Act, applicants' names are always blanked out; even in communications between government departments and in public uploads of responses to queries.
Instead of brushing aside the questions raised, the government has a duty and democratic responsibility to ensure that the application and its response are, in fact, made public. Instead, it behaves like an all-powerful oligarchy that has forgotten it owes answers to the people.
Many among us are doing our bit to serve the country. But some more than others are literally in the line of fire, like soldiers and also RTI activists, who may not be gazing at foreign enemies but have to confront enemies within our own society—when an RTI activist falls, it is no less a loss of life or a martyrdom than when a soldier is killed in the line of duty. The one thing we share in common with these brave souls is our citizenship. And from one citizen to another, is it not incumbent on us to ensure the safety of RTI activists who seek accountability on our behalf? Is our responsibility to those who keep the deep recesses of our society clean and transparent any less than to those who protect the borders from enemies beyond?
Accountability, the government should know, is not a favour—it is our right as Indians.
The government is currently seeking public opinion on the proposed changes. While this government has made clear its contempt for civil society and non-governmental organisations, the onus is on us to preserve our right to demand answers from the powerful. I appeal to my fellow citizens to voice their opinion on this crucially important matter and to ensure that government continues to be held accountable and that nobody in positions of authority can draw a smokescreen and evade the tough questions that we as a people ask. Accountability, the government should know, is not a favour—it is our right as Indians.