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Saturday, May 4, 2002

In a democracy the citizen is the sovereign. The elected representatives and appointed employees are public servants whose job it is to govern on behalf of citizens and provide quality services. Obviously, the public servants should be accountable to the people. The most vital tool of accountability is information on what the government agencies are doing and why.

How much money is allocated for a road? How did they choose the contractor? When was a person arrested by police, and why? How long has he been kept in custody? What are the technical specifications of a municipal road? Who are the beneficiaries of myriad government schemes? How are they chosen? How much salary is paid to a local official? How much income and wealth is the local MLA declaring?

These and many other questions must be answered to our satisfaction. We should be certain that our tax money is well spent; the employees are discharging their responsibilities fairly and diligently; decisions are taken on merits; rule of law is strictly enforced; officials are not playing favourites; and authority given by us is not abused for personal gain.

That is what right to information is about. This right is inherent in the fundamental rights [Art 19(1)(a)] guaranteed by the Constitution. But such an implicit right without proper procedures and mechanisms for its enforcement is no good. Therefore we need a sensible legislation giving substance to the citizens’ right to information. A servant cannot keep secrets from his master!

And yet the first oath every new minister takes on assuming office is an oath of secrecy! And getting any information related to our daily lives becomes a tooth extracting exercise. When are the politicians going to learn and when are we going to realize that all elected representatives, all public officials and the government exist primarily to serve the welfare of the country and its citizens? The citizen should have access to information on all matters that affect his life save those matters related to national security or public order.

This right to information has two aspects. Right to have access to information and right to be informed. The first is when a citizen goes to any government office or agency seeking information which is of immediate relevance to him – this could be simple information like how much tax a citizen owes the municipality to uncomfortable questions such as how much tax was collected from a particular locality and how was it used.

The second aspect is where the government and its agencies have the legal obligation to inform the citizens on matters related to arbitrary arrests and about projects having environmental and other consequences. The government frequently earmarks substantial amounts for public works, ration shops, health programs, housing projects and other anti-poverty schemes. Often, the people are unaware and only few of the poor actually benefit. It is the duty of the government to proactively publicize such information without waiting to be asked.

In AP, the Lok Satta movement has been demanding such a right. 200,000 citizens gave a  signed petition to the Governor 3 years ago seeking right to information, among other things. A draft Bill has been prepared based on past experience in India and abroad.

At last the State government recently announced its decision to enact such a law. A Cabinet Committee has been constituted to finalise a Bill. Civil society’s role is not over with this. We must ensure that a law is enacted. We must see that it is not a token law, but a substantive one including a few key provisions – minimal exemptions, reasonable time limits, citizen to have access to all information that legislators can access, strict penalties for non-compliance, provision for independent appeal, and protection to whistleblowers (those in government who disclose information in public interest). And we must actually see that such a law is enforced. Citizens need to be trained in the use of such a law to ferret out information, and to analyse information to hold government to account.

The media, civil society activists, and citizens need to play a proactive role in this effort to hold government to account.