eGovernance in India

Improving eGovernance in INDIA

Information Warriors – Right to Information Act activists are fighting to protect right to see file notings

Posted by egovindia on August 5, 2006

Information Warriors

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Arvind Kejriwal, an IITian and former income tax officer, is spearheading the national RTI movement

Ajit Ranade

One of the great achievements of the present government was the enactment of the Right to Information Act, which was passed by Parliament in June 2005 and became operative in October. The RTI movement partnered with NDTV and launched a fortnight-long campaign educating the public about how easy it was for ordinary people to use RTI.

The theme of the campaign which ran successfully last month was “don’t pay bribes, use RTI”. The way it works is as follows. File your application using the normal routine for either a ration card, passport, birth or death certificate. If after a reasonable time your application is still not processed, and you suspect it is because you did not pay a bribe, then simply fill out an RTI application form and ask for the status of your application. The government is obliged to respond, thanks to RTI. And from there it is easy to nail any lackadaisical officer, since you would know where exactly your ration card or passport is held up.

Of course all this is not as easy as calling “197” and asking for directory information from MTNL. But it’s a huge leap in the empowerment of ordinary citizens. The RTI law actually puts each citizen of India on par with a member of Parliament as far as access to government information is concerned.

The private sector is not covered yet, but any private body receiving a government grant is covered. So just like an MP can haul up a bureaucrat in the middle of the night and ask for a particular file, so can you. Well, not exactly in the same manner, and certainly not at night — but you get the drift.

Often the colourful story of government policy making lies in those files (bound by the notorious red tape). All the deliberations that lead to a decision are captured in “file notings”. And the sequence of notings, as well as who said what and when, is valuable information about how the government works. It is precisely the exposure of these notings that has caused the bureaucracy to go up in arms against RTI.

So believe it or not, within less than eight months of enacting a great law, it is being amended to exclude all file notings from being disclosed. The rationale of exempting file notings from RTI is that exposure of notings will prevent bureaucrats from being free and frank in their deliberations. They will hesitate before committing their views on paper. But the fact is that honest bureaucrats have nothing to fear, and everything to gain from exposing the notings, since their decisions will be based on their conviction, which they can defend in public. Honest babus actually welcome this transparency as it strengthens their lot.

A former such “babu” who is spearheading the national RTI movement and also the force behind NDTV’s campaign, is Arvind Kejriwal, an IITian and former income tax officer, who has been awarded this year’s Magsaysay Award — sort of like the Asian Nobel Prize. His award is a timely boost for the RTI movement.

Early in his career when he tried to introduce transparency in his income tax office, Arvind found that one of the hurdles to transparency was the ubiquitous peon outside his office. We all have had our frustrating encounter with this proverbial gatekeeper — who decides who can see the boss, and at what price! So Arvind moved his table right into the corridor, directly into the “sunlight”. This indeed is the spirit of RTI — all public decision making needs to be in the sunshine of the public gaze.

Arvind and his fellow info-warriors stand for the principle that in a true democracy with a transparent and accountable government, information needs to be “let loose” among the people, and there can be no such thing as too much transparency.


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