Monday, March 14, 2005

Right to Information

We, the citizens of India, are the masters of this country. The governments exist to serve us.We all pay taxes. On paper, so much money is supposedly spent on our welfare, but where does all this money go? We, the masters, never took accounts from the governments. Because, within the existing legal and administrative frameworks, it was not possible to do so. But, now we have a right to question governments. The governments are legally bound to provide us information. A number of state governments have passed Right to Information Laws, which empower the citizens to question governments, inspect their files, take copies of government documents and also to inspect government works.

“In a government of responsibility like ours where the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct there can be but a 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 bearings.”

- Supreme Court in State of UP vs Raj Narain in 1975

Some people feel that if we had good politicians and bureaucrats, India would be a better place to live in. The real change would come when the people start demanding accountability and the government is forced to respond. Then it would not be easy for the governments to go astray.Right to Information is the first concrete step in that direction. People are already holding governments accountable by seeking details of funds spent in their areas. Municipal Corporation improved quality of roads when people demanded copies of contracts in some areas. Street lights, which were not functioning for years, lit up with the use of right to information. People started getting rations after years when records of ration shops were sought. How is the common man making a difference? Corruption is rampant in India. It is almost impossible to get any work done in any government office without paying bribes. If you do not pay bribe, unnecessary objections would be raised and you would be made to run around. But now you have an option. You don’t need to pay bribes anymore to get your legitimate work done in any government department. The simple act of demanding to know the status of your grievance petition and the names of the officials who have been sitting on your file does wonders. Almost 200 people got their individual grievances resolved within a matter of few days of filing applications under RTI Act. Grievances of a number of these people were pending for the past several years for expectations of bribes. People got new electricity connections, faulty meters were replaced, wrong bills were rectified. RTI did wonders for all these people. Ration cards were made, faulty water bills were rectified, old age pensions were restored and many other works were done as soon as the people filed applications to know the status of their applications and the names of the officials who were sitting on their files. Absent sweepers turned up for duty when their attendance registers were sought. Incomplete works were completed and quality of works improved when copies of contracts of the works was sought. MLA was forced to release money for a work demanded by the people, when the people obtained details of expenditure made by her out of her MLA Development Fund. A number of ghost works were found when copies of contracts of all the works carried out by the government in an area were obtained. Right to Information is also redefining the relationships between the people and the governments. Till now, the people had to run around the government officials to get any work sanctioned or to get any work done in their area. Not any more. Right to Information provides such critical information and evidence in the hands of the common man that equipped with this evidence, a person is able to take on the most entrenched vested interests. The officials run for cover and at times almost plead before the applicant.

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