The Right to Information Act 2005 has opened up a space where people are able to ask questions of their government and bring the focus on cases of serious lapses in governance.
Back in 2010 when we filed our RTI one had to go to the concerned department, find the Public Information officer (PIO) and then complete the necessary paperwork with them. At that time, we remember waiting around for hours while the officials ran around trying to find the PIO who himself wasn't sure of all the procedures. This process has been streamlined with a facility of online filing (for central departments) of RTI queries. Today we can file RTIs sitting at home on our computers.
Over the past several months, we have worked with a small team of student volunteers who have been filing RTIs in different departments. One of our earliest RTIs was filed with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to find out the number of people who were enrolled through the "introducer system", whereby Indians without existing documentation can get an Aadhaar card through someone vouching for them. However, our RTI query showed that the number of people without any prior identification documents who were included through the UIDAI, was woefully low. (Just 0.03% or 2.19 lakhs out of 83.19 crore issued.)
"A major hurdle to the smooth functioning of the RTI is an increasing lack of timely feedback to reassure applicants that the process is on track."
As we proceeded, however, we found that the entire process was mired in difficulties that we had not anticipated. We faced serious problems with the response time and the substantive quality of the responses. In all of these cases, without exception, the response was delayed over the 30-day mark; for almost all we've had to file a first appeal and, for some, we received incomplete answers.
For instance, for an RTI filed with the Ministry of Food and Supplies, Chandigarh to furnish all correspondence between the central government and the Chandigarh administration regarding the shift to Direct Benefits Transfer in the PDS, we were told that our queries were "hypothetical" and that it was beyond the scope of the definition of information. Meanwhile, on 1 September 2015 the government has initiated cash transfers in Chandigarh.
A major hurdle to the smooth functioning of the RTI is an increasing lack of timely feedback to reassure applicants that the process is on track. For another RTI filed with the Department of Health Research of the central government, we received no communication for over a month after the initial acknowledgement that our RTI had been transferred to another department. When we phoned the concerned officials, they kept transferring our call from one department to the next, leaving us to wonder where our RTI had gotten stuck in this long chain of bureaucratic functionaries. According to the Act, the Information Commission is meant to impose a fine on officials who do not stick to the deadline. However, in practice, the rate of imposition is very low and the burden of prodding the system to work continues to fall on the applicant.
While our experience in dealing with the system is limited and not necessarily representative, it gives us an idea of how tedious it might be for people with scant resources and busy work days to find the time to follow through to the final stages, to gain information that is often crucial to their everyday lives. It is disappointing that, 10 years later, delays for many are not exceptional. To follow through on a delayed RTI means filing for a first appeal and second appeal, a process that can take several months before one sees any fruition, if at all.
It is not enough to have a law in place -- what is required is a robust system of accountability. What is powerful about the RTI Act is that it envisions a climate where information is easily available and accessible. It makes it the responsibility of the authorities to "provide as much information suo motu to the public", with the intention that people have little cause to resort to this law. In practice, suo motu disclosures are only half-heartedly implemented.
Today, 12 October, marks the 10th anniversary of the law. The proper functioning of a law like the RTI tells us a lot about the health of a democracy; how open and transparent its government, how accessible its various functionaries and how involved and participatory its people. Holding the state accountable has never been an easy task. The Right to Information Act provides us with a powerful tool to do so.