ON MAY 11, 2005, the Lok Sabha passed the Right To Information (rti) Act, an improved version of the Freedom of Information Act of 2002. "Eventually the right to information enables the redistribution of power in a democratic framework," says activist Aruna Roy, for long involved in demanding such a legislation.
Concerns remain, however, about its effective implementation. But Roy emphasises that "ultimately, every person will have to make time to ask questions to the institutions whose decisions affect their lives. This law is better than any other state law in India because of the provision for penalties." Indeed, the Act provides for a strong and independent information commission, both at the central and state levels, with the power to impose penalties. These commissions will hear appeals and monitor implementation; penalties up to Rs 250 per day or a maximum of Rs 25,000 can be levied for not accepting applications or delaying information release. However, since penalties are calculated on a daily basis, it is not clear what a commission could do if records are destroyed, the information provided is incomplete or incorrect, or information is denied in bad faith.
The rti Act provides a time limit of 30 days for normal application and 40 days for third-party submissions. The limit is lesser if the information required "concerns the life and liberty of a person". There is a reasonable application fee and the service is free for those below the poverty line. Not only government bodies, but the private sector, too, falls within the Act's ambit.
A third-party clause may prove a thorn in the side of some rti processes: if an information officer "intends to disclose any information or record which relates to or has been supplied by a third party and has been treated as confidential by that third party", the third party has to be given a hearing before disclosure. More tellingly, the Act exempts intelligence and security agencies from disclosing information, though information about corruption charges or human rights violations can be accessed. Other exemptions relate to information that would harm national security, public safety and order, cabinet papers, advice in policy-making prior to decision, trade or commercial secrets.
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