RIP RTI? The dark clouds over India’s ‘sunshine law’

RIP RTI? The dark clouds over India’s ‘sunshine law’

Aug 13, 2023

(Times of India)

Several parliamentarians and civil society activists have raised concerns that the Digital Personal Data Protection Act (DPDP) 2023 — passed by Parliament this week — may be the final nail in the coffin for the Right To Information (RTI) Act. When it came into force in 2005, it was hailed as a ‘sunshine law’ that would make governments transparent and accountable. But even before the data Act, RTI had suffered a thousand cuts.

Just ask Reena (uses only one name), a resident of Delhi’s Dakshinpuri resettlement colony and a divorcee who makes ends meet by cooking in people’s homes. Struggling with rising living expenses as a single mother, she tried to apply for scheduled caste certificates for her three children in 2012 in order to access government schemes and much-needed financial aid. After several months of petitions and pleadings, she hit a wall. The Delhi government required proof of her ex-husband’s SC status to move ahead.

“I went from one office to another but there was no one who would listen. They just said that there is no policy for single divorced women like me.” Frustrated, Reena filed an RTI in 2016, with the help of a social worker, asking for information on the government policy for single SC mothers who required certificates for their children. There was no response, but Reena persevered. It took two years for the Central Information Commission (CIC) to take up her case, and in August 2018, it ordered the government to take action. “Even though the order said that I should be given information and some way devised by which I can be given a caste certificate, nothing happened.” The six-year struggle appeared to be for nothing.

Reena’s story is not the exception but rather the rule. The initial promise of the RTI law of moving towards a rights-based culture where citizens could access information has been belied. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)’s Nikhil Dey, who was instrumental in conceptualising the RTI Bill, says, “It was a movement to overthrow the colonial legacy and move to a culture of transparency.” Yet 18 years later, lack of proactive disclosure by the government, long delays, lack of punitive action when information is not given in time have contributed to its slow death. Shailesh Gandhi, former information commissioner in the CIC, sarcastically describes RTI as “the right to deny information.” Read More