Right to Information: harmonise conflicting interests

Ashok Bhan
The Jammu & Kashmir RTI Act in its current form came into existence on 20th March 2009.  It took some time for the Government to constitute the State Information Commission. After initial hype, there unfortunately has come some dimness in the sheen of this path breaking legislation. Not because it is not yielding any results but because its implementation seems to have entered into a deadlock between rival interests.
While the hurdles in transition from a mindset of secrecy in governance to transparency and accountability were not unexpected, it was thought that the conflicting interests between the various stakeholders will get harmonised with the passage of time. It has not exactly happened. It is time to take stock of the deficit between expectations and what has been achieved so that mid-course corrections are made by the stakeholders. The deadlock between rival interests must be broken.
According to a recent report by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) there are 66,000 complaints and appeals pending before just six Information Commissions information from which was available for analysis. It may be recalled that the Central Right to Information Act stepped into its 10th year of implementation on June 23, 2014.  Why so much of pendency despite time bound framework prescribed by the Act? At this rate there must be lakhs of RTI queries pending before PIOs and Controlling Officers. Can this pendency be reduced substantially if more and more information is voluntarily put in public domain?
The Government invests huge sums of money in creating infrastructure for e-governance. The purpose of this as far as it relates to RTI was threefold- to introduce efficiency in the system; to ensure digitization of record for easy retrieval; and to put in public domain as much information as is necessary once the record is available in digital form.
Sec 4(2) of the J&K RTI Act reads “it shall be the constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub section (1) to provide as much information suo motto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of the Act to obtain information”.
If the spirit of this provision is faithfully met, there will be lesser and lesser need to resort to RTI. Technology has to be leveraged in a big way to make the dream of e-governance and accompanying transparency a success. Heads of Departments must be made accountable about the progress achieved in this arena and targets set for them to make available information voluntarily.
To begin with, the thumb rule can be to put in public domain all information that is repeatedly sought by the legislators’ session after session. As a collateral advantage it will allow legislators to focus on more important issues. Entire information related to services sought under Public Services Guarantee Act (PSGA) and progress in each case must be in public domain. Recruitment and admission processes can be made more transparent. Availability of information on various developmental schemes, outlay and stage of implementation can be put on websites. E-tendering and e-payments can make a substantial difference to promote transparency regime. One can go on and on.
Instead, currently a huge burden lies on the poor Public Information Officer (PIO). They have become the whipping boys of a system unwilling to change the secrecy regime into one of transparency. The PIO is not responsible for the working of the entire department. He is also not the store house of entire information about services rendered by his department. He has to depend on the concerned dealing hands that are not liable under the Act. There is no formal training program for PIOs.
The Heads of Department expect PIOs to safeguard the interests of the Department but the RTI expects him to follow a strict time frame failing which he will be punished. There is no punishment for non-cooperation from Departmental heads or dealing hands. There is no serious audit of steps taken for making e-governance a reality. There is no notice of the failure to implement Sec 4(2) of the RTI Act. The proverbial Damocles’ sword keeps hanging over the heads of PIOs alone. The situation needs to be redeemed.
It is alleged that some individuals, activists and NGOs have been misusing the provisions of the Act for their personal ambition of remaining in news and harassing the PIOs. According to sec 3 of the Act every person residing in the state shall have the right to information under the Act. Therefore, legally speaking the activists and NGOs do have a right to information. But we must not misuse this sacred right to harass the Government functionaries or jeopardize the efficient running of the Government.
Sec 23 (1) of the RTI Act which requires Government to organize educational programs to advance the understanding of the public, in particular disadvantaged communities, as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under the Act. Guidelines have to be issued in official languages and updated at regular intervals. Unless and until the public is fully educated in the use of the provisions of the RTI Act, the role of NGOs and activists will continue.
Common citizens are not aware whom to approach and how to approach for seeking information. The Government and the Information Commission may consider opening a helpline and helpdesks in each district where not only information on use of RTI Act is available but facilities for writing applications free of cost and depositing of fee is also available.
Yet the role of NGOs and activists in unearthing scams and cases of misuse of public funds will always remain and need not attract unnecessary criticism. The only caveat is that sought information must truly be in public interest and not for narrow personal interests or harassing the Public Authority.
The preamble of the Act declares in unequivocal terms that the democratic ideal of right to information is paramount. Yet it also recognizes the need for harmonising the conflicting interest between this right and other public interests including efficient operations of the Government, optimum use of limited fiscal resources and preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information. Information seekers must not hold Government to ransom under the threat of RTI. Lack of harmony often leads to strains in the relationship between the three important stakeholders- the information seeker, the Information Commission and the Government. Possibly the subject is still in its infancy and developing. With passage of time precedence and judgments will help achieve the desired harmony and understanding of each other’s point of view. Meanwhile, the Government, the State Information Commission and information seekers must sit across the table to try and harmonise these conflicting interests. The sacred spirit of the legislation that ‘democratic right of information is paramount’ must not be lost in a conflict of interests between different stakeholders.
(The author is a former Vigilance Commissioner of J&K.)