Report No. 275
(b) RTI Movement - social and national milieu
1.59 The beginning of RTI movement in India at the grassroot level can be attributed to the persistent efforts of organisations such as Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). Talking specifically about MKSS, formed in 1990, its vigorous efforts in the area of minimum wages, right to information in rural Rajasthan, and other forms of human rights related activities, mobilised the Government of Rajasthan to ultimately enact the Rajasthan Right to Information Act, 1999 which came into force in June 2000.
1.60 The burgeoning demand for right to information led by civil society organisations coupled with the demand for repeal of the Official Secrets Act, 1923, could not be ignored by the decision-makers. Consequently, the first major draft legislation was circulated by the Press Council of India in 1996.
This draft legislation affirmed the right of every citizen to information from any public body, and that 'public body' included not only the State as defined under Article 12 of the Constitution but also all undertakings, non-statutory authorities, companies, corporations, societies, trust-firms or cooperative societies owned or controlled by private individuals and institutions whose activities affect the public interest, effectively bringing both, the corporate sector and the NGOs within the purview of the proposed legislation.27
1.61 The Government of India, subsequently, constituted a Working Group on Right to Information and Promotion of Open and Transparent Government under the Chairmanship of Sri H.D. Shourie. The Working Group was asked to examine the feasibility and the need for having a full-fledged Right to Information Act or its introduction in a phased manner to meet the needs of open and responsive governance and also examine the framework of rules with reference to the Civil Services (Conduct) Rules and Manual of Office Procedure.
The Working Group submitted its report in May 1997 along with a draft Freedom of Information Bill. The draft Bill enabled the authorities to withhold such information, the disclosure of which would not subserve any public interest. It further narrowed the definition of public authority by excluding private sector and those NGOs that were not substantially funded or controlled by the Government, watering down quite a few of the positive aspects of the draft circulated by the Press Council of India.28
After deliberations, the Freedom of Information Act, 2002 was passed by the Parliament, which received the assent of the President in 2003. However, since this Act was never notified in the Official Gazette, it could not be enforced. In retrospect, it was realised that this Act could not have fulfilled the aspirations of the public.
1.62 The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC), under the Chairmanship of former Chief Justice of India, Justice M.N. Venkatchaliah, submitted its report dated 31st March 2002. It identified the right to information as a fundamental right, and also stated that the major assumption behind a new style of governance is the citizen's access to information. The Report added that, much of the common man's distress and helplessness could be traced to lack of his access to information and knowledge of the decision-making processes.
It was further stated that the Government must assume a major responsibility and mobilise skills to ensure flow of information to the citizens. The traditional insistence on secrecy should be discarded. In fact, we should have an oath of transparency in place of an oath of secrecy. Administration should become transparent and participatory, minimising manipulative and dilatory tactics of the babudom, and most importantly putting a considerable check on graft and corruption.29
1.63 The Common Minimum Programme of the UPA Government promised to make a law on right to information that would be more progressive, participatory and meaningful. The Government set up a National Advisory Council which suggested significant amendments to the Freedom of Information Act which prompted the repeal of this Act and the drafting of the Right to Information Bill de novo.
The RTI Bill was tabled before the Lok Sabha on 23rd December 2004 but was later on referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee. The final Report of the Standing Committee was tabled before the Lok Sabha on March 21, 2005.30 The Bill was passed by both Houses of the Parliament in May 2005 and received assent of the President on 15th June 2005. The RTI Act came into force on 12th October 2005 with the issuance of notification and its publication in the Official Gazette.
1.64 It has been aptly remarked that, law is a regulator of human conduct.31 However, no law can effectively serve its purpose unless it is accepted by the society and has an equally effective enforcement mechanism backing it up. Acceptance by the society automatically follows when the conduct of the decision-makers themselves reflects integrity, transparency and accountability in actions affecting public interest.
1.65 The onus of protecting this interest ultimately rests on the shoulders of the Government whose duty it is, to look after the welfare of the people. Where a society has chosen democracy over any other form of governance it is evident that the citizens want transparency in the conduct of those who are in a position to affect their interests.
Such citizens may at any given point in time call upon the stakeholders to be accountable for their actions and in that scenario the Government of those elected from among the citizenry itself has few options except to come up with a mechanism to accommodate that demand. It can be clearly observed from the perusal of the slew of Supreme Court decisions as well as from the genesis and evolution of the RTI Act, 2005, that the right of the populace to know and be informed has been considered to be a sacrosanct right for the smooth working of democracy in India.