Perhaps the single biggest positive outcome of the five-year rule of the UPA led by Manmohan Singh is the enactment of the law that gives Indian citizens the right to get any piece of information from their governments, with few exceptions. The credit for that goes not so much to politicians, Sonia Gandhi excluded, as to public-spirited activists such as Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze, Arvind Kejriwal and many others.
Like a sapling planted at the first hint of rain, the Right to Information Act, 2005 has taken firm root. Even in the face of a recalcitrant bureaucracy and crony-bureaucrats taking over as State Chief Information Commissioners, and State governments starving the commissions of funds for infrastructure, the law has grown like a banyan.
From getting a ration card to securing information on important government decisions, the law has truly empowered Indians. Not surprisingly, it is better understood and made use of more by the less affluent sections (if you ignore the motivated government servants resorting to it to harass their colleagues). The much by the vaunted middle classes who would rather grease palms and pull strings than take the trouble of using the law, or demanding that governments do what they must under its provisions (such as voluntary disclosure of activities). But then, most middle class individuals don’t even know what a Government Order is.
Coupled with the rural employment guarantee programme launched by the UPA, the RTI has proved that information is indeed power, that it can humble our babus, prise open government doors shut in the face of the tax-payer, and hopefully, lead to a cleaning up of our system. At present, it is happening incrementally, because the corporatised media has failed to (perhaps by design) grasp the import of such a law.
Now that the Lok Sabha elections are on the anvil, it is time to push for RTI Act 2.0. It is almost certain that right wing forces are waiting to whittle down the law — for appearances, the law would remain, but its crucial provisions compelling officials to part with information will be given a quiet burial if the BJP and its cohorts are voted to power in 2009.
We should remember that among the earliest governments in the states to opt for an information rights law was the AIADMK, a party notorious for its secrecy, its monolithic structure and the several layers of extra-constitutional authorities that guided its decisions. If this party were to have a say in the next Central government, and it pursues its policies of the past, that would spell great harm for the RTI Act. The safer thing to do is to avoid voting for it, unless by some cruel twist of fate, it comes to support an alliance with secular parties, post-poll.
For the moment, the important thing to do is to assess the RTI Act, its working and its future path. This fine article in Frontline magazine does a good job in making an assessment. Here is a call by some of the activists in the forefront of the information rights movement asking our Supreme Court judges to voluntarily declare their assets and set an example.