BALWINDER SINGH IN THE HINDU
The Right to Information Act (RTI) is a path-breaking law which empowers ordinary citizens to obtain the required information from the public authorities. This is also a major tool for preventing and fighting corruption. The media have been highlighting from time to time the positive work being done by RTI activists. But the experience in the last few years reveals that implementation of the Act has got distorted.
Section 4 is the cornerstone of the Act. It stipulates that “it shall be the constant endeavour of every public authority to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through means of communication, including internet so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.” The Act goes to the extent of identifying certain specific areas of information which the authorities have to publish in the public domain within 120 days of the enactment.
This critical aspect of the RTI Act has not received the attention it deserves from the authorities, the Central and State Information Commissions or even RTI activists. This has led to the burdening of government organisations as well as the Central and State Information Commissions with a large number of individual applications seeking information and filing appeals, clogging the system. The Information Commissions will soon reach a stage where pending matters will take years for disposal, thus making the system dysfunctional. Every public authority, especially those having a large public interface, needs to take up the challenge of fully implementing Section 4 at the earliest.
Computerisation of government records is not merely a process of conversion of manual records. The challenge lies in re-engineering the business processes and then computerising the records in such a manner that it simultaneously leads to improvement in the efficiency of the organisation and maximising the availability of information in the public domain in formats which are useful to the general public or the stakeholders. While there is no explicit mention of the role of the CIC and the State Information Commissions in this regard, it is inherent in the very scheme of the Act that the Information Commissions have to play a pivotal role in ensuring that Section 4 on maximising information in the public domain is complied with. The Information Commissions can take the cue from the directions issued by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) in November, 2006.
This author conceptualised and drafted the relevant circular of the CVC which gave directions to all government organisations to provide complete information on their websites on the laws, procedures governing the issue of licence, permission, clearance, etc., and also make known the stage of applications from public or business entities when they are seeking such permissions, clearances, NOCs, licences, building plans and passports from the public authorities. He prepared an illustrative list of 16 areas where information is to be necessarily displayed in the public domain; three of these are as follows:
Land & building related issues
-Applications for mutation, conversion from leasehold to freehold of lands and buildings, approval of building plans by municipal authorities and the land owning regulating agencies like the MCD, the DDA, the NDMC, the L&DO and similar agencies in other Union Territories;
-Application for registration deeds by Sub-Registrars/Registrars and other applications connected with land record management;
-Application for allotment of land/flats, etc., by urban development agencies like the DDA.
Contracts & Procurement
-Applications for registration of contractors/suppliers/consultants/vendors, etc.
-Status of all bill payments to contractors/suppliers, etc.
Issue of driving licences, registration of vehicles, fitness certificates, release of impounded vehicles, etc. by the RTAs.
The same exercise can be carried forward by the Central as well as State Information Commissions. If the Information Commissions construe their responsibilities in a very narrow manner and take a view that they can only act on complaints, then civil society, the chambers of industries and commerce and RTI activists can lodge complaints wherever maximum possible information has not been placed in the public domain on websites or otherwise and the Information Commissions can issue directions to the public authorities in this regard.
The full potential of the RTI Act can be realised only by maximising information in the public domain. This would not only further the cause of right to information but also upgrade and modernise the working of government agencies, thus improving governance.
(The author is Special Director of the CBI and his email id is firstname.lastname@example.org)
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