RTI: The challenge from within

The other day I was in the office of Delhi’s lieutenant governor (LG).  I was talking to an officer – one of the most honest and efficient in the current lot serving the Delhi government – about the loopholes in the administrative mechanism and the initiatives LG has taken to fix the same.  The focus of the talk shifted to the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The officer narrated to me an incident, and proudly so, of denying information to an RTI applicant. The applicant, he informed, had asked very technical and specific questions regarding the Yamuna action plan. After going through the questions, this officer phoned the applicant. He turned out to be a research student from the JNU who wanted the information for his thesis.  The officer conveyed to him that it was “unfair” on his part to file an RTI application to obtain this information and he could personally come to the LG office and collect the same.

Legally, the officer was holding the information and could have passed on the same to the applicant. But this, he told me, was one of the many instances in the past, where he had withheld the information.

The officer had just finished telling me about the episode and was expecting applause from me, when another gentleman, an employee in a government office, took the opportunity to recount his experience as a public information officer (PIO).

He told us how he asked an applicant to submit Rs 10,000 towards the cost of gathering the data he had sought in the RTI query. The applicant, the gentleman said, never got back to the office. “You should know ways to deal with such people. They just waste our time and the resources of the system,” he concluded.

One can find such examples of PIOs coming up with flimsy reasons for denying information, in almost all the government offices.

Much has been said about the success of the RTI Act. Praising the law as one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation, Wajahat Habibullah, the former information commissioner at the CIC, said, “it has caught the imagination of the entire country.”

According to Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former administrator, ‘RTI’ has become the most popular abbreviation in India, second only to ‘CrPC’.

To an extent, they are right.

The transparency act has surpassed many laws in the country in terms of awareness – thanks to civil society.  However, the very objective of the act, that is, to make the system more transparent and accessible to the general public has not been achieved.

And one of the many reasons why the idea of having a transparent democracy has not translated into a reality is the attitude of public servants, who are supposed to provide information to the applicant within a given deadline without asking him/her the reason for demanding information.

Public information officers (PIOs) are the first link between the applicant and the information.

Five years since the law came into existence, the attitude of the PIOs is to keep the records close to their chest rather than passing them on to the applicant who has the legal right to ask for the same.

This is because PIOs are the people who, for years, worked in an environment where they were in the practice of withholding information.

More than anything else, it is about mindset.  And asking for the mindset to change overnight will be asking for too much.

This appeared on governancenow.com on January 17, 2011



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