Ears have been picked, where is the info?

Published: Monday 30 November 2009

information is critical to democracy, which holds the citizen as the sovereign. But In India, the citizen had no effective power to question, let alone get redressal for legitimate rights. For a long time the government could withhold information from people by using the draconian Official Secrets Act. The Right to Information Act, passed in 2005, empowers citizens to ask for information from their government, and has the potential of enforcing the majesty of the Indian citizen. In the last four years, citizens have used the right for innovative purposes. People have used this tool to get ration cards, birth certificates, passports and health records. Two years ago, a resident of Rajasthan got his free rations under Antyodaya and a 14-year-old boy in Gujarats Mehsana district pushed the authorities on the backfoot by asking them for data on the citys water supply. Now an rti query by a Kerala doctor has brought to light that the government continues to deny there is a vaccine shortage in India. Another rti query by a Mumbai doctor revealed the high number of deaths in Mumbais Chembur area may be linked to the landfill nearby. Recently the Delhi High Court brought judges under the acts purview. But let us not go overboard according to a survey only one in four people applying for information under the act get it.

The government is now trying to reduce the number of applications under the pretext of checking frivolous rti applications. The bureaucracy has been pushing for this measure since the rti was passed. It will gladden their hearts that surveys have revealed that 80 per cent of the countrys rural population and more than 50 per cent of the urban population are not aware of the act. A large share of the failure to get the act going should fall on civil society organizations. rti is no largesse doled out by the government. It is a product of a long civil society campaign. But having got this weapon in their arsenal, civil society organizations have slipped into a self congratulatory mode. rti even got a touch of glamour about it with the media house ndtv feting activists. That is fine, but the celebrations must be tempered.

The age of ad wars
celebrations must also be tempered because the government agencies are not the only ones controlling information. This is also an era of advertising and marketing. Consider the issue of safe drinking water, for example. People are losing faith in municipal water supply since old leaky networks pose a great threat of contamination. Water purifier manufacturers and dealers have made bad water a selling point; tens of millions of Indians now own a point-of-use purifier. Notwithstanding the number of market players, the scope for business is enormous. A competitive price is essential and there are some gains in this for the consumer. But the consumer is also spoilt for choice. With every salesman out to convince that his purifier is the best in the market, it has become increasingly hard to make an informed decision. Advertising is not known for telling truths. An ad issued by an established water purifier manufacturer has denigrated the use of chlorine in water treatment. There are health hazards associated with disinfection by-products. But the context is misleading since a majority of water works the world over continue to use the same for disinfection. Rather than highlighting the genius of products many ad teams resort to disparaging their competitors.

Protest we must
while information in the hands of citizens can be a weapon, it can be a tool of oppression if left solely in the hands of government agencies. UKs privacy watchdog recognized this recently. It has asked chief constables to justify the legality of recording thousands of law-abiding protesters on secret nationwide databases. In doing so, the privacy watchdog also recognized the key role of protests in a democracy. Like access to information, the right to protest checks government tyranny. A credible democracy is one in which the public is empowered and can question the government.

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