The Right to Information (RTI) is something many government departments in Assam are not at all comfortable with. Large sections of high-handed and corrupt officials would like to go about in secretive manner if they can, for obviously they have much to hide. This deep-rooted contempt for the people’s right to know, comes out clearly in figures recently furnished by State Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Himangshu Sekhar Das. In the past ten years, the Commission has received over 10,000 applications, of which 5,826 are pending. Departments against whom the number of complaints, about not providing information to RTI applicants, are highest — include Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, Agriculture, Food and Civil Supplies, Revenue, Social Welfare, Education and Forest. The aversion to providing information is so pervasive that most government websites are not even updated. According to the State CIC, even the relatively simple task of keeping departmental websites regularly and thoroughly updated would keep the number of RTI applications substantially down. This is because many RTI applicants actually desire routine, straightforward information, which ought to be easily available online. This would also be in accordance with Section 4 of the RTI Act which stipulates that every public authority should maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner facilitating the right to information, and ensure that all records appropriate to be computerised are done so, and provided pro-actively to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including the internet. Significantly, the State CIC has mentioned that a section of people also misuse the RTI Act for the purpose of ‘blackmail’, which seems an indirect admission that some government officials are willing to pay handsomely to keep mouths shut! Still, blackmailers masquerading as RTI activists need to be dealt with firmly, and the gaon police recently bbed one such miscreant on the basis of a complaint filed by the Information Commission itself. The State CIC does not see the need to amend the RTI Act, though he believes the rules may be changed to make the ‘disposal of information faster and more accurate’. Setting a target of disposing 2,500 cases annually, he claims that the implementation of the RTI Act has brought in more transparency and has affected the decision-making process of the government in a ‘positive’ way. However, the Assam RTI Forum, the People’s Rights Forum (PRF) and other information seekers have been regularly complaining about the way the State government gives short shrift to the Information Commission by keeping it toothless. Manning the Commission mostly with retired bureaucrats or officials on temporary basis has limited its effectiveness. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has often claimed credit that Assam was one of the first states in the country to have its own RTI Act in 2002 even before the Central Act came into force three years later. But the rapidly increasing number of appeals to the State Information Commission shows that government authorities here care least about providing information in response to RTI applications, because they know there is none above to pull them up. Information is either blatantly denied or furnished in such a manner that it is virtually useless.
How an alert citizenry defends and uses its right to information will determine how much public authorities can be kept at bay in trying to blunt the RTI Act. When Parliament ected this law in June 2005, Congress president Sonia Gandhi drew praise for her role in pushing an enlightened legislation — that was expected to open up to public scrutiny a governmental culture swearing by the Official Secrets Act which the British had enforced way back in 1923. But it did not take long for the UPA government itself to develop misgivings about the RTI Act, particularly when scams like the 2G scam broke. None less than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011 loudly complained about ‘concerns’ like RTI Act’s potential to ‘discourage honest, well-meaning public servants from giving full expression to their views, adversely affecting deliberative processes in the government, and flooding a public authority with requests for information having no bearing on public interest’. That the rendra Modi government too is ambivalent and guarded about RTI has been borne out by its tough stand against information on public domain in several spheres, leaving the Central Information Commission headless for months on end till recently, and speaking up for many political parties in the Supreme Court that the RTI Act must not be applicable upon such parties.