Bit by bit, through individual telephone calls, petitions, letters, ballots and multifarious ways citizens have pressurised the government to follow correct democratic procedures. However, this is not the time to rest, feels the former Central Information Commissioner
Right to Information (RTI) users have been allergic to any amendment in the Act because they know they have an Act, which is one of the best transparency acts in the World. Despite poor respect for laws and uneven implementation, citizens have found it acting as a great instrument for change. Most users have begun to feel empowered in negotiating with those in power using this instrument. Hence, they have been resisting any change in the Act. They rightly realize that those in power are uncomfortable with the Act and will weaken it if they have an opportunity. The Cabinet first decided to amend the RTI Act in 2006 and nationwide opposition to this move forced them to stall the move. In 2009, another move was made to get the Information Commissioners to support amendments to the Act, which was skilfully deflected. In 2012, ultimately the Cabinet decided not to pursue the agenda of amending the RTI Act and buried its decision of 2006 by giving a public assurance and burial to amendments.
The Central Information Commission’s decision on 3 June 2013, holding six major political parties as public authorities subject to the RTI Act, upset them. This meant being accountable to citizens at not only the time of elections, but all the time in terms of providing information. This irritated them and was a challenge to their arrogance. The government used this to get collusive agreement to issue an ordinance to amend the RTI Act. Public outrage at the thought of misusing a Constitutional provision brazenly managed to stall this. The government then decided to bring an amendment bill in the Parliament, realizing the unconstitutionality of its earlier move. Across the country, there were demonstrations and petitions opposing this. Over one lakh signatures were collected by a petition of National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI). In Gujarat, ballots were collected against the amendments and Mumbai held demonstrations outside railway stations. From many places there were reports of protests in a variety of ways.
Suresh Ediga staying in the US decided to call up members of Parliament (MPs) over telephone to persuade them to oppose the amendments. Many others took to this method and either met MPs or telephoned them. The grotesqueness of the political system ganging up to hurriedly pass an amendment to constrict the citizen’s fundamental right has now begun to dawn on our politicians. Citizens pointed out to the MPs that they did not appreciate their idea of changing the law without consultations with them. They pointed out that transparency in the political parties would improve faith and trust in them and lead to a better India. The Government appears to have realized the self-goal it was scoring and hence has decided to refer the bill to the Standing Committee. Citizens have cause to celebrate and congratulate themselves.
As individual citizens without any central organizing body, they are exercising their sovereignty. They did not get together in a mass, which would threaten authority. But bit by bit, through individual telephone calls, petitions, letters, ballots and multifarious ways they put pressure on those in power to adopt the correct constitutional device first and then to adopt a proper consultative and deliberative process. Citizens have done this exercise in a very mature fashion, demonstrating how to make democracy function and have held a candle to their MPs. This is how democracy must work through peaceful, persuasive engagement; not using whips and unruly methods.
They will continue this process of engagement with the political class and the Parliament, until it is accepted that no RTI amendments will be made until 2025. That will be a solution, which will allow them to focus on spreading the law to all and making transparency and accountability non-negotiable in our governance. This is not the time to rest. Yes, we, the people, will make it happen.
(Shailesh Gandhi served as Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act, 2005, during 18 September 2008 to 6 July 2012. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from IIT-Bombay. Before becoming a full time RTI activist in 2003, he sold his packaging business. In 2008, he was conferred the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Award for civil liberties.)
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