HOPEFULLY, the public will now know. If a draft bill on the freedom of information, prepared by a 12-member
committee, is accepted by the Union Cabinet,-the government
will be under obligation to provide citizens with any information they ask for. Such a measure is more than welcome.
The right to know can translate into a right to demand and
power to change. Far too long, government action has
remained shrouded in unnecessary secrecy. Information that
could be considered vital for the public good, has never been
willingly shared with the people. Even as large Parts of the
democratic world have moved towards making access to
information easier, the Indian government, following the
footsteps of its erstwhile coloniser, Britain, has kept its
proceedings away from the people. Today, there is wide
acceptance that the right to information is indispensable for
increasing and enforcing accountability.
However, the bill needs to be publicly scrutinised and
improved before it is passed by Parliament. What must be probed is the practicality of legislation that would guarantee ordinary citizens such a right and lay down time limits as well as penalties if the information sought is not provided. Opponents of the bill argue that the government system would be overwhelmed if every citizen were to demand bulky, and sometimes irrelevant, information.
Such fears are unfounded. A lot of information is already
being collated and compiled within the government. There is
very little authority that is exercised in government that is, at
least in theory, not accountable to a higher level. Making these
documents, reports and other papers available - at present
available only to senior government officials - to ordinary
citizens should not be such a difficult task. Even if it is, it is
a cost that a nation should be prepared to pay for its democracy.
All that needs to be done is to set up mechanisms to provide
this information to the people who ask for it. Given the
availability of technology, generating additional copies of such
information at a price would not be unbearably burdensome to the system.
Putting a price on the information has other advantages.
The department concerned can be held accountable if it does
not deliver the goods. Fortunately, this has been reportedly
provided for in the draft bill. The official or the department
concerned are liable to be taken to the consumer court, under
the Consumer Protection Act, if the information is not
provided within the stipulated 30-day period.
As yet, the draft bill has not been seen by anyone outside
the government. The reworked draft was submitted to the
Cabinet secretary on May 22 and much of what the media is
debating is drawn from comments by H D Shourie and its
original author, Justice P B Sawant. The proposals in the bill
are reportedly radical enough for it to cut a swathe through
virtually every level of government administration. It seeks to
bring within its purview all public authorities, with a public
authority being defined as "any organisation, institution or
department substantially funded by the government".
Therefore, not only Central and state ministries, but even
public sector undertakings, administrative offices of the
Supreme Court, high courts, Parliament and state legislatures,
municipal bodies and panchayats will be covered by the
provisions of the proposed bill. But the meaning of
11 substantial funding" is left unclear. Neither are the words
"organisation, institution or department" defined. Would it
then mean that even non-governmental institutions that
receive money from the government or schools that are run by
the government become open to public scrutiny. In fact, if
passed, the Right to Information Bill proposed by justice
Sawant, which the H D Shourie Committee has been studying
on behalf of the government, would be a first- of- its-kind
legislation in the world as its recommendation is to extend
the right of information to cover the private sector, including
multinationals and business establishments. This was emphasised by Justice Sawant in his address to the Goa Union of
journalists on May 18.
If this be the case, the government will go beyond any
legislation on the right to information that exists in the world
today. Information about the government should be made
public. The government is there to work for the people. Citizens
have a right to know what is being done with their money and
their resources. They have a right to know what the government
is doing for their future. They have a right to know if the
government is working at all. But to extend this to other bodies
may be taking things a bit too far. A private firm has not taken
money from the taxpayer and there is no justification for the
latter to demand information about the former's activities,
except for all those documents that any private agency submits
to the government under its financial, environmental and
The right to know can help strengthen democracy. It has
the power to transform lives. But the government could begin
this long march into transparency by putting the proposed bill
and its provisions up for debate. The government does not
have much of a track record in implementing its laws. Let it
begin with the government sector and then amend and extend
the law as more experience is gained. Every long journey begins
with a small step. It's definitely time now to take that step.