India's Right To Information Act Under Threat

In 2005, India’s government, led by the Congress Party, passed the long overdue Right to Information Act. Today, the act is an invaluable tool that grants every citizen of India timely responses to queries relating to any public body. It has been used an impressive 600,000 times, and an equally impressive 90% of the applications have been disposed of. Over 400,000 of these applications have been from rural India, with over 35% coming from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of society. It is clear that the act has empowered millions of previously marginalized and muted citizens.

Disturbingly, but unsurprisingly, certain elements in the political establishment now want to reduce the scope of the act.

It is a well accepted fact that corruption in India is endemic. It is prevalent from the lowest echelons of officialdom (with traffic police known to accept the equivalent of a $1 bribe to overlook a speeding violation), to the highest (one of the raging political controversies today involves politicians granting of telecom licenses at billions of dollars below their market values). While the former fosters a general atmosphere of petty lawlessness, the latter implies a monumental loss to the exchequer, funds that should have been used for public purposes. Over the last year however, the RTI Act has aided the uncovering of a large number of political and economic scams and frauds, with judicial proceedings being initiated against high-ranking political dignitaries. If these cases can be taken to their legal conclusions and the guilty brought to book, it would signify a promising new era for a country that has struggled under the weight of bureaucratic and financial irregularities.

The arguments for limiting the scope of the act range from the barely logical (the selection of national sportsmen should be exempt from RTI on the grounds that full disclosure may foster bad blood between competitors for a particular spot) to the diabolical (exemption of the National Nuclear Safety Authority). Further, some of the suggested limitations are downright ludicrous; for example, it is unclear why RTI Applications should be restricted to 150 or 250 words. Presumably parliament now functions via Twitter.

The RTI Act was a landmark legislation for India and has helped create the image of a modernizing democratic country. Curtailing it now, in addition to safeguarding those who have abused the lack of accountability that existed previously, would be cowardly and calamitous.

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