The Constitution of India does not explicitly mention a right to information (RTI). RTI was first recognised by the judiciary as a fundamental right that formed an inseparable part of the freedom of speech and expression that the Constitution guarantees to every citizen. The Indian Right to Information (RTI) law is unique in the fact that it was demanded by some of the poorest of society, who recognised how powerful a tool access to government-held information, can be. Several streams of activism and advocacy for protecting the environment, human rights, consumer rights, and combatting corruption culminated in the nation-wide campaign for a strong RTI law towards the end of the 20th century. A notable feature of this movement for transparency in government was the grassroots level demand for RTI voiced by unlettered people mobilised under the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan and the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Andolan in Maharashtra. As a result of this vocal public demand, and the strong involvement of civil society in the drafting process, the law is very much “owned” by the people in India.
CHRI was deeply involved in advocating for the enactment of the RTI Act, taking an active role in the process of drafting the law. We compiled internationally recognised best practice principles which formed the basis for crafting key provisions of the RTI Bill. CHRI was instrumental pushing for the inclusion of the multi-member information commission to monitor the implementation of the law and resolve information access disputes without the burdensome procedures of a court of law. We also succeeded in getting provisions such as the power to impose penalty on officials who refuse to supply the information to people on demand, and proactive disclosure of information in the law - key features of the law that is being used widely. After the adoption of the law, we assisted the Central Government and more than 15 State Government to plan the implementation of this seminal law and train officers tasked with making decisions on people’s requests for information.
CHRI monitors the implementation of the RTI Act, with particular emphasis on the functioning of Information Commissions and the manner in which RTI disputes are eventually resolved by the Courts. Earlier, CHRI sensitised and trained Public Information Officers (PIOs) to perform their duties. CHRI trains citizens groups and civil society organisations to demand information that is of interest to the larger public which governments are reluctant to disclose. CHRI also strategically litigates for making categories of information that governments do not make public easily in order to enable people to hold them to account.
Even now, with the deaths of prominent RTI activists and violent attacks on many RTI users around the country, access to information remains a struggle. CHRI continues to increase awareness and conducts regular workshops training people to use the law effectively. Despite setbacks, RTI has been used successfully all over the country to help achieve accountable and transparent governance.
The RTI Act is being implemented across the country for a decade. All States have put in place implementation mechanisms by designating Public Information Officers (PIOs) to receive and make decisions on people’s requests for information; appointing appellate authorities who have a duty to review a PIO’s decision when challenged by an unhappy requestor and establishing Information Commissions who ate the ultimate arbiters on disputes between Government bodies and a requestor about access to information. Rules detailing the manner of implementation of the RTI Act have been put in place. CHRI contributed significantly to the process of developing guidelines for public authorities to make more and more information proactively available in the public domain.
In Jammu and Kashmir, CHRI nurtured the civil society advocacy for a strong law on access to information because the national law does not apply to that State due to its special status guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
Every year CHRI reports on the state of implementation of the RTI Act with particular focus on its use by people and the functioning of Information Commissions. CHRI provides pro bono advice to public authorities and civil society organisations to bed down the regime of transparency established by the RTI Act.