In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Aruna Roy, activist (former administrative officer and Magsaysay Award winner) explains how:
WSJ: On the Right to Information (RTI) Act, with which you've been closely associated since its inception 4 years ago, what is the progress so far?
AR: The RTI has become a lifeline for democracy in our country. Despite the failures of various state commissioners or government to implement Section 4. (This mandates the government to publicly disclose as many as 17 bits of information, including its budget, personnel, areas of work, etc.) That's why today the government can't touch the RTI without touching the whole of India. Because it's been used by a variety of people for a variety of reasons, with reasonable success. Sharing information is sharing power and nobody understands this better than the bureaucracy and the politicians, in that order.
But the people are now asking for their, for our share of governance, our share in decision-making, in fact if the tribals of India had had RTI 40 years ago, the situation that we face today wouldn't have happened. Wherever I travel, people feel the RTI is their Act and they own it. This is a fundamental change from what existed years ago.
Of course, a number of problems remain, of infrastructure, non-delivery, of systems not being in place, information commissioners not being trained, etc. But on the whole, the Act has worked.
WSJ: But despite its success, the government wants to amend it. Why?
AR: The government wants to put all file notings under wrap. Meaning, all discussions, consultations, all reasons for decision-making should become secret. Which means you'll know nothing about the process, just the end decision.
WSJ: But so far the process has been open?
AR: Yes, so far the process has been open, although they now want to close that. The Department of Personnel & Training which comes under the Prime Minister's Office, which is responsible for the functioning of the RTI, is now saying that the "consultative process" as well as anything that protects the "candour" of people expressing their opinion, will not be revealed. Behind this move to amend the Act and to kill its spirit, is the bureaucracy.
WSJ: So the government which gave the RTI to the people four years ago is now taking it away?.
AR: Equally horrifying is that all applications which are "frivolous or vexatious" will be disallowed. Now who is going to decide what that is? Possibly, the policeman or the 'patwari' (village revenue official) or the 'sarpanch' (village headman)… Naturally, everything will be "vexatious"…The move undermines the entire Act itself.
WSJ: You've been involved with the NREGA on the ground, how well do you think it has worked?
AR: I will say that this is the first rural development service where people know what they are receiving so they can monitor it, where there has been concurrent evaluation, where we know what the losses or gains are. So, every time I read about corruption in the NREGA I am thrilled, not because there is corruption but because for the first time, so many people are protesting against waste of public money. India should be proud.
WSJ: Give me an example…
AR: A women's group in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, has got 1400,000 rupees ($29,710) as unemployment allowance because they applied for work and didn't get it. According to the Act, you have to get work in 15 days within five kilometers of your village, and if the government can't give you work, it has to pay you unemployment allowance…Could you ever think of something like this before?
WSJ: But what about the enormous leakages and lakhs of rupees down the drain…
AR: For the first time, we know where the money has gone, even if its down the drain. We know who's swindled it and how it has been swindled. In Bhilwara, in Rajasthan, we have just completed a social audit. We used RTI to access public records and bring them out into the public domain, share it with people whose names are on the records and took a public meeting to testify whether their names were rightly or wrongly there.
You see, RTI is a mandatory provision in the NREGA, which means transparency and accountability on the part of government functionaries is now mandatory. That's how you find out what's going on, because now the people can't be refused information. It's mandatory for every 'panchayats' to do a social audit before the next installment of money is released by the government.
Read more about social audits and government-public relations in the interview.
While the RTI amendment is being fought, it is not being given enough prominence in the media. Peeyush Bajpai's blog post points to the role of media and RTI :
The power of RTI lies in the hand of the citizen- the “aam-aadmi”, it gives him the power to get the information. In nine out of ten cases the information would concern specific issues to an individual or a small community.
Unfortunately, these amounts and issues are 'too small' to 'merit' national attention and reports fall by the wayside, even though there is so much happening on this front.
As Peeyush points out:
The media houses have always prided on their role as custodians of impartial information dissemination. This is thus a challenge for the media to evolve a mechanism of disseminating such specific information in a focussed manner.
Meanwhile, we hope that blogs carry these stories forward.