How to make the best use of Right to Information (RTI)?

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The Right to Information Act (RTI) act is now more than 12 years old. It has made a significant impact in these 12 years. But how to make the best use of this sunshine legislation?

It’s been more than a decade since the Right to Information (RTI) act came into being. It has definitely lived up to the expectation of being one of the most progressive and citizen friendly legislation ever passed in the country. Even according to various global non –profits, the Indian RTI Act is considered one of the most progressive and best laws in the world and serves as a model for similar laws across the world. Number of citizens who hitherto had no way of asking questions & getting information from the government turned into RTI activists and started accessing information about the functioning of the government. The act is still in a state of evolution and citizens also should find ways of making the best use of this sunshine legislation. This write up will dwell on the different ways RTI can be used and how that information can be used to effect changes or corrective measures.

According to conservative estimates, more than 6 Million (60 Lakh) RTI applications are filed in the country each year and this number is increasing. While these applications could be on various issues and could have been filed for many different outcomes, the RTI could be broadly used for the following.

  • To address deficiency/delay in service delivery
  • To expose abuse of power/authority, arbitrary decision making etc
  • To seek information that can used for advocacy and other purposes

All RTI applicants need to think about the utility of the information received before filing an application. Such an approach will help the applicant have a 360 degree view and will also ensure that the information received has the desired impact.

To address Deficiency/Delay in Service Delivery

Many a time, citizen services delivered by the government are deficient in nature. There could be many reasons for the same. It could be due to the lack of ownership from those in the system, lack of understanding/awareness on the citizen’s side, lack of adequate follow up, culture of bribes, corruption etc. The objective of seeking information in this category is to make sure that deficiency in the service delivery is corrected and things get done on time.

There are two ways to tackle this issue. The first one is to ask for information that would result in the delivery of service that could be pending for a long time. This is especially applicable at the grassroots (dealing with local governments or government agencies at the grass roots), where entitlements due to the citizen are either delayed or never given. The kind of information sought could be the rules governing such service delivery, related timelines, status of the specific application of the citizen to get that entitlement, reasons for rejection/delay(if any) and details of punitive/compensatory measures (if any) in case of deficiency/delay in service etc. This is more like asking if there is a citizen’s charter governing the service delivery.

There can only be two possible answers to these set of the questions. Either the official in charge has to respond saying the pending service was delivered (meaning the RTI application has resulted in the delivery of the service) or he/she has to respond with the reasons for the deficiency/delay in service. This information will help the citizen plan the next steps. In certain cases, he might need to submit additional documents etc. The RTI application will invariably work because the Government officials cannot officially accept the delay in service delivery without any apparent reason. So in a way, this is like forcing/reminding them to do their work on time. The expectation is that over time, the response becomes proactive instead of being reactive.

The second approach is one of the frequently asked questions by citizens, about the bad state of public assets like roads. While the citizens would like to know the reasons behind the state of affairs, do remember that RTI only enables us to seek information which is already on government record. So the record will obviously not contain why a specific road is bad, why a certain work was pending etc. The way to tackle this is to follow the ‘Complaint and RTI’ approach. Every Government department has a grievance/compliant redressal system. Most municipal corporations/councils these days have an online/call center grievance registration system. The system does not usually work because there is no adequate follow up and officials they don’t feel the necessity to address such complaints on time. With RTI, this is bound to change since they are mandated to provide information within a timeframe. The first step is to lodge a formal complaint/grievance using the existing system (get as many people endorse this complaint or file a similar complaint) on any issue of deficient service with the relevant official. Remember this is not a RTI application, but a normal compliant/grievance. Do not forget to get some form of formal acknowledgement for the complaint/grievance filed to be used later. Once it is filed, wait for a couple of weeks or for such a time frame that is mandated for grievance redressal. Following this,  file an application under RTI asking for the action taken/status of this complaint/grievance and the reasons for not resolving the same. This will now work because the official in charge cannot in writing say that nothing has been done. Each department will have internal rules or a citizen’s charter pertaining to complaint/grievance redressal. He will either forward it to the relevant official or initiate steps to resolve the complaint. Citizens must remember that it might need multiple follow ups. One could also ask for details of funds spent, repairs undertaken (in case of road works etc.) and other such details that could help in understanding the issue in greater detail.

To expose abuse of power/authority, arbitrary decision making etc

Whenever an activist or a citizen smells corruption in a particular scheme/decision, the way forward is to get all the information to prove such deviations. But take adequate care of your personal safety. If there is a looming threat from the corrupt, get a friend or somebody from a far off place to file the application and get the information. You can ask information like the copy of the complete file related to a project, copy of bills, copy of vouchers, copy of tender documents etc that can establish the corruption angle or abuse of power. But, it is always better to consult a subject matter expert before filing the application. This would help understand better about the kind of documents created & maintained by the government while executing various works or taking various decisions. For e.g., if the information sought is about a civil work executed by the government, then it would be useful to talk to someone who has worked in that area.

Once the information is received and there is sufficient evidence to prove the wrongdoing, one has to make use of the existing mechanism in the government. One could lodge a complaint with the State/Central Vigilance commission with all the evidence. One could also approach the ACB/CBI or even Lokayuktha/Lokpal. The complainant can later follow up with these agencies as to what happened to these complaints and the status of the investigation. And if the information sought is related to corruption at very high places and the applicant does not want to take a risk, then he/she could approach a media agency that would be interested in taking this up. The other option is to make it public on some public website without revealing your identity. The objective of seeking information is to expose the wrongdoing and initiate an investigation.

To seek information that can be used for advocacy and other purposes

Quite often, authentic information is required to further the cause one is advocating or to even know authentic details of a scheme or a project.  It could be data related to farmer suicides, malnutrition or expenditure on foreign visits of the President etc.  The applicant can use this authentic information in furthering a cause and as evidence in courts of law. The applicant has to ask the right questions to get the right data/information. Make sure you read your application multiple times to check if you are asking the right questions. Again, it might help consulting a subject matter expert before filing an application. Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi’s effort in getting information about the details of under trials as per Sec 436A of CrPC is a fine example of this.

Applications without any apparent purpose will not help the cause

The RTI act does not mandate the applicant to state reasons for seeking information from the government. But it would be useful if the applicant can think of the follow up action once the information is received. Thinking of the follow up action will greatly enhance the utility of the information being sought, thus making the act itself more powerful. RTI has the power to alter power equations, address gaps in service delivery, expose the corrupt etc., but all this is possible when we learn to use it the right way.

Take the first step
On this good governance day, file your first RTI application online with a Central Government Department.

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