Over the last month or so we witnessed an upsurge of protest from the people and people’s organizations over the proposed amendments by the Union Cabinet to the Right to Information Act, 2005 from all over the country. The people had realized the importance of this Act. This Act for the first time since independence gives people the right to change the equation between themselves and the ruling elites. The governed can now ask questions about virtually every aspect of governance from the class which has claimed to govern them for 59 years and created a mess in every department and ministry. The people have realized that they can actually assert their rights as masters of democracy, which they are, but the ruling elites never let them be. They are filled with a sense of empowerment and the bureaucracy for the first time is feeling under pressure to be accountable to the people. Nobody believed that the bureaucracy and politicians could be reined in but the Act has provided a glimpse of that possibility and therefore people are elated.

People began filing applications under the RTI Act asking questions about various things, from accounts of village panchayats to enquiries of progress on their pending files in government departments. Since there was a time limit within which the bureaucracy had to respond, otherwise it faced the risk of a penalty, things started moving. Santosh Bahadur Singh, an advocate in Rae Bareli was trying to get an illegally built structure on the Collectorate campus removed. He had successfully gotten a court order in his favour but was not able to get the administration to comply with the order. He filed an application under RTI Act asking why the court order was not being complied with and who was responsible for negligence? The District Magistrate of Rae Bareli had to get the construction demolished overnight. Santosh Bahadur Singh proudly video recorded the demolition exercise. Ajay Kumar Singh, a disabled person in Varanasi, had obtained a job with the Nagar Nigam but he was not being asked to join. He had been running for about a year and a half but his plea would fall on deaf ears. He filed an application under the RTI Act asking why he was not being asked to join inspite of having secured a job with the Nagar Nigam and who would be held responsible for the loss that he had suffered because of this? An attendant from the office went searching for him and told him to come and join from the next day. When a former IG of police S.R. Darapuri in Lucknow obtained the details of expenditure of 3 MP and 8 MLA Local Area Development funds using RTI Act, it was discovered that our people’s representatives buy a laptop computer at about three times the price for which it is available in the market! Gross corruption is being uncovered. Thus is the power of the RTI Act.

Fearing that the people would use the RTI Act to take away what the bureaucracy has considered its prerogative for all these years – to take decisions in arbitrary manner – they hastened to clamp down the Act. The bureaucracy came up with seven proposed amendments to the Act which were approved by the Union Cabinet. They did not want file notings, Cabinet decisions, information related to processes of examinations and selections to be made public. They wanted the identities of officials conducting enquiries, submitting recommendation, etc., to be kept secret. They did not want the basis for transfers and postings of officials to be revealed to the people. In matters in which decisions were under consideration they wanted not just file notings but any kind of information to be excluded from the Act. And the most damaging proposed amendment was to take away the independence of Information Commissions. Information Commissions presently enjoy the same status of autonomy as Election Commissions. However, the proposed amendment said that in case of any dispute the decision of the government was to be considered as the final. The amendments proposed by the Government intended to make the Act toothless. As MP from Deoria Mohan Singh put it the Government should have avoided the trouble of trying to explain the amendments and instead brought a one line motion to the Parliament saying that they intended to withdraw the Act!

The people were quick to realize the implications of the proposed amendments even though the PMO issued a clarification that the amendments were meant to bring about more transparency. There was a backlash in the country and people protested vigorously. Some politicians, former judges, serving honest public servants and one Information Commissioner spoke out against the attempt to tamper with the Act. The Government would have been foolish to go ahead with tabling the proposed amendments in the Parliament. It appears that for the time being they have unofficially dumped the ‘amendments’.

This is a victory of the democratic spirit that is India. The politicians and bureaucrats must know that people of this country do not tolerate arbitrary decisions for very long. They have fought passionately to save their democratic right in the past and will do so once again if need arises. The people with mala fide intentions who think they can mislead the common people must have no misgivings. If they make an attempt to dilute the Act in any way, now or later – inside or outside the Parliament, they will be met with serious resistance. The illiterate and half literate masses of India have demonstrated, time and again, that you can trust their political consciousness.

By Sandeep Pandey