A New Right
to Information Bill
Will we finally get what we deserve?
- Charmaine Rodrigues & Mandakini
RTI Team, CHRI
On 23 December 2004, the United People’s Alliance (UPA) Government in India finally tabled a new Right to Information Bill 2004 (“RTI Bill”) in Parliament. When passed, the RTI Bill will replace the Freedom of Information Act 2002 (“FOI Act”) which was passed more than 2 years ago but was never implemented.
The right to information has been recognised for decades by the Supreme Court of India as a fundamental right of every Indian under Article 19
(Right to Freedom of Speech and expression) and Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution. In practice, this right recognises that every person in
India has a guaranteed right to access information held by government departments information which explains what they do, how they do it and how much it costs. Information is not a gift graciously given by Government. It is collected on our behalf with our money and we should be able to access
it as of right.
of the Government's information is kept secret, particularly if
it might lead to exposing of corruption. A properly drafted and
effectively implemented Right to Information Act can be used by
the public to ensure that the Government will no longer be able
to dodge our questions. If civil society is active in using the
right to information to scrutinise the Government it could serve
to change the very nature of governance in India as we know it
by finally forcing public officials to be answerable to us, the
The FOI Act passed
in 2002 was poorly drafted. As such, it was hoped that the new
RTI Bill would offer the country a new opportunity to effectively
implement our fundamental right to information. While considerably
improved, the new Bill still contains a number of drawbacks, which
need to be fixed before the Bill is passed.
It is in all of
our interests to make sure that the very best Bill possible is
passed by Parliament – and passed quickly. A good law will give
us a powerful tool, which we can use to hold government officials
to account. This is long overdue.
to the Development of the RTI Bill
The campaign for
a comprehensive right to information regime celebrated its ten-year
anniversary at the second National Right to Information Convention
held in Delhi in October 2004. The campaign, which started as
a grassroots movement in Rajasthan, has grown to encompass activists
from all over the country. Over the years, it has notched up many
successes. Most notably, nine states in India have already passed
Right to Information laws – namely, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Rajasthan,
Karnataka, Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Jammu
at the national level, progress has been much slower. Although
the FOI Act was passed in 2002, it was very weak, failing to conform
to well-accepted international standards. In any case, although
the FOI Act was published in the Official Gazette in 2003, the
Government never notified a date for it to come into operation.
It has thus remained a paper tiger.
In 2004, hopes
were bolstered when the UPA Government specifically promised in
the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) to make the FOI Act more “progressive,
participatory and meaningful”.
The National Advisory
Council (NAC), set up to oversee the implementation of the CMP,
took an immediate interest in the issue, discussing right to information
at their very first meeting in July 2004. Based on submissions
by CHRI, the NCPRI and other civil society groups, the NAC as
quickly as August 2004 submitted a set of recommendations for
amending the FOI Act to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Information under lock &
between August and December 2004, when the UPA Government tabled
the Right to Information Bill 2004 in Parliament, it appeared
that the bureaucracy had got its hands on the NAC amendments and
used this opportunity to remove and/or dilute some key recommendations
final version of the Bill.
This is not entirely
surprising. The bureaucracy is probably well aware of the potential
for the right to information to finally make them accountable
to the public – and it’s doubtful that they are keen to see that
setbacks, campaigners remain hopeful that a stronger Act can still
be passed by Parliament. It appears that a special group of Ministers
may be made responsible for reviewing the RTI Bill. Already, the
RTI Bill has been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee
on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice for consideration.
The public is encouraged to write to the Committee, calling on
members to recommend that the Bill be improved to bring it into
line with best practice standards and then passed as a
matter of priority.
in the RTI Bill
The RTI Bill 2004
sets out to provide a ‘practical regime of right to information
for people to secure access to information…in order to promote
transparency and accountability. If passed, the RTI Act 2004 will
extend to the whole of India except Jammu and Kashmir and will
come into force on the 120th day of its enactment.
- Only citizens
can request information from a public authority, defined
as anybody constituted under the Constitution or a law made by
Parliament, or anybody owned or controlled by the Central Government.
This definition does not include private bodies which perform
public services or which receive funds or concession from the
- All public authorities
are required to proactively publish information about their organisation,
function, duties and services, including proposed development
activities and recipients of subsidies.
- Certain types
of information are exempt from disclosure, such as information
which if released could harm national security or international
relations, legally confidential or commercially sensitive information,
or where release would impinge on the right to privacy. Unfortunately,
the Act also provides a blanket exemption for all documents of
Cabinet or the Council of Ministers, and does not cover a range
of intelligence and security agencies such as Intelligence Bureau,
Research Analysis Wing, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and
Central Economic Intelligence Bureau.
- Citizens must
request information in writing (including by email). Applications
are submitted to a Public Information Officer (PIO) or an Assistant
PIO who is appointed at the sub-divisional or sub-district level.
An application fee will need to be paid (to be prescribed).
must be responded to within 30 days, except in cases concerning
the life and liberty of the person where information must be provided
within 48 hours. Where no response is received, this will be deemed
as a refusal. Applications must be rejected in writing.
- Where applications
are approved, a fee will be imposed for accessing the information.
However, if the application is not dealt with in time, the fees
will not be returned. Information can be requested in hard copy
in any form (e.g. paper, video, tape, sample) and people can also
inspect documents or public works.
- If a person
feels they have been wrongly denied information, they can appeal
to the officer immediately senior to the PIO.
- A second appeal
can be lodged with an independent Central Information Commissioner
(CIC), a newly established position under the law. The CIC and
his/her Deputies constitute an independent, impartial appeals
mechanism. They can override public authorities and require disclosure.
Their decisions are binding.
- Penalties can
be imposed on PIOs of up to Rs. 25,000 or a prison term extending
up to five years for persistently failing to provide information
within the specified period. This penalty clause is very
weak, because it only sanctions persistent non-compliance.