Knowing is living, right? I mean, as an inhabitant of this crowded Planet I can survive only if I am aware of what is happening around me, and can mould my actions accordingly. The same applies to every living organism on earth. But for us human beings this knowledge comes in different layers. For instance, I need to know what the temperature outside is so I can prepare myself when I go out to work. I also need to know if the law of the land allows me to take a day off in case I am not feeling well enough to step out. Wait, I need to know even more! Does the government have any policy to ensure all office authorities provide 'paid' leaves to the employees who report sick?
Okay, you are a student, and you can choose to stay in bed one day without worrying about a pay cut. But you do need to know how you have fared in your board exams, don't you? And you must also be told that you have the right to question the decision of your examiner if you find it hard to accept the marks that have been handed out.
Knowing all this is what makes us competent, powerful, and eventually successful. Therefore, a nation which encourages its citizens to enquire, and offers them the right to be informed, is actually building itself up to be powerful, competent and successful as well.
Yes, India is one such country. We can demand to know how our government functions by exercising our Right To Information (RTI). The Right to Information Act which came into force on October 13, 2005, empowers every citizen to ask for information from the Government, and to get it. The scope of this Act is quite vast. Here information implies any material in any form that can be found in the Union ministries, in Parliament and state legislatures and in the Indian Embassies.
This includes records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models and data material held in any electronic form. The same rule applies to all government funded hospitals; educational institutions; and social work agencies. It also covers a private body whose records are maintained by a government agency.
For example, take a private factory whose environmental impact assessment is done by a government body.The RTI can demand to know the details of its pollution load. So, while private companies do not come within the Act's ambit directly, in certain cases the Act does grant a public authority the right to access information from a private body and then pass it on to the RTI user who is asking for it.
Do I really need to ask?
Now you are wondering exactly how relevant this is in our everyday life. Well, let me give you some examples. By using the RTI tool you can demand to know who is responsible for fixing the pot holes in the road next to your house; or why is the garbage dumped in front of your playground; or who gave the polluting factory permission to set up shop in your backyard; or who is allowing the local mining barons to denude and split apart the neighbourhood mountain range.
These are some of the things which probably you speculated, observed, and knew were wrong. Now you can use the RTI handle to dig up answers to these and fix responsibilities. And sometimes stumble on shocking facts like the following:
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (the authority which gives the go ahead signal to mining projects) had almost zero rejection rates for the mining sector till some time ago. It was later revealed that the Minister then in charge was a stakeholder in one of the companies himself!.
Out of the 120 water bodies that once existed in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, 82 have been destroyed and concrete structures have come up in these sites. Who built them? The Ghaziabad Development Authority, a wing of the state government which was responsible for protecting these structures in the first place!
No more secrets please!
Democracy simply does not permit secrecy on public platform. The Official Secrets Act of 1889, which declared all files and works of government as a guarded secret, was relevant when it was enacted, because India was under colonial rule, and the Indians had no rights as free citizens. But even after Independence no step was taken to amend the Act. In fact, there was no progress on this front for many, many years.
So when the outraged Indian citizens demanded action against the infamous Union Carbide after the catastrophic Bhopal Gas tragedy in 1985, when leakage of a poisonous gas from the production plant left thousands dead and many others maimed for life, the government refused to make any details about the compensations provided by the company public. And when some participants were found taking notes during a workshop on medical assessment of victims, they were arrested under the Official Secrets Act!