The question is how much information the government can withhold legitimately from the common people? Right to information establishes a direct connection between the accountability of the government towards the citizens and the ability of the citizens to get authentic and truthful information. Secrecy by the government not only questions the legitimacy of the elected government but also creates a doubt in the minds of the people regarding the working of the government. The government which discloses all the relevant information to the public and works transparently gains the public support confidence and trust. Likewise, the government that conceals its policies and actions losses the faith of the people who elected it.
RIGHT TO INFORMATION:
Through Right to Information, any citizen of India by attaching his identity proof can file a Right to Information application to ask for any information from the government. He can inspect any Government papers, files, documents, reports, records, circulars, rules, advice, contracts, manuals logbooks, etc, and take their certified photocopies. Also, any data in electronic form like e-mails can be asked to be inspected through an RTI application. In case of a citizen doubting the use of low-quality material by the Government in the construction of bridges, flyovers, roads, etc then that person can not only inspect the work done by the Government but also take with him the sample of the material used for any such construction. Such documents, reports, samples, electronic records can also be presented and filed in Courts by litigants against the Government as they are issued by public authority.
The Right to Information however is not absolute and without any restrictions. If any citizen of the country asks for some information from the government officials that affect the country’s integrity, dignity, security, economic interests of the State then it can be restricted. The public authority is not liable to provide any information to the common public that may endanger the national interest, defense, security, respect of the country in international politics.
IMPORTANCE OF RIGHT TO INFORMATION:
- Today in the times of the Modern Welfare State, the governments have a lot of power to make decisions that affect the social, economic interests of the common masses. When such powers are not checked or held accountable they can be largely misused by the government officials for their personal gain. Thus, the right to information checks the abuse of power by the legislature who makes the laws and the executive who implement these laws. The decision-makers and the bureaucrats may take decisions that are not for the benefit of the public but the benefit of some rich business class people.
- Openness and transparency in the working of the government prevent bribery, dishonesty, fraud and also raises the standard of decision making. The right to know about the government policies and decisions helps in strengthening participatory democracy and contains corruption by government authorities.
- Access to government documents, records files helps the people who get the information they need to take legal actions against the unjust policies and decisions of the government. It helps the common masses to check the quality of the work of the government, the efficiency of the government officials. If such officials are found to be misusing public funds for their own benefits, using low-quality raw materials, taking bribes from the people for carrying out their official work, etc then legal action can be taken against them based on proof gathered through samples, files, records obtained by the right to information.
RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, 2005:
During the British rule in India, they used to guard their actions by Acts like Official Secrets Acts, 1923. Through this act, the government could withhold any information whose disclosure may prove to be detrimental to their powerful regime. However, as more and more people became educated they started questioning the Government and its work. People realized the importance of the right to know about the working of the government.
Right to Information Act, (RTI) which came into effect on 12th October 2005 replaced the earlier Freedom of Information Act, 2002. As per the RTI Act, any Indian citizen can ask the public or government authority to provide information. The government has to provide the asked information within 30 days. The Public Information Officer (PIO) decides the right to information application and appeals made. If the concerned officer fails to provide the asked information within the time-limit prescribed then a fine of Rs.250 per day can be imposed upon him. If such an officer provides false information then a maximum penalty of Rs.25000 can be imposed on him.
ROLE OF JUDICIARY IN RECOGNIZING AND PROTECTING THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION:
The Judiciary in India after being under pressure to help the people to gain excess official information and thereby stop the government from misusing its power emphasized the provisions of the Constitution of India. The Judiciary observed that the right to know comes from the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to the people of India in Part III of the Constitution. The Judiciary stated that Article 19 (1) (a) guarantees Fundamental Right to Freedom of speech and expression. Here, this right not only includes the freedom to talk about one’s opinion and views but also includes the right to know about the working of the government and to hold the public authorities accountable for their actions. Article 21 of the Constitution which provides the right to life and personal liberty gives the right to the people of India to know the government documents and policies.
In-State of U.P v/s Raj Narain, Justice Mathew was the first judge to recognize and emphasize the citizen’s right to know. Further, in S.P. Gupta v/s Union of India, Justice Bhagwati stated that the right to know is implicit in the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Recently, in Reliance Petrochemicals Limited v/s Proprietors of Indian Express Newspapers Bombay Pvt Ltd, Justice Mukherjee recognized that the right to know emanates from the Right to life. The judge stated that it must always be remembered that the people of India have a right to know so that they can take part in participatory development in the democracy. The right to know is a basic right that comes from that right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. The right to know has now reached the extent of urgency and new dimensions.
When we talk about environmental protection there is a strong connection between the right to know and Article 21 of the Constitution. Through the right to know the people can know about the secret decisions of the government to cut all trees or mangroves, permit factories by destroying forests thereby affecting our health, life, and our livelihood.
In Bombay Environmental Action Group v/s Pune Cantonment Board the question before the Bombay High Court was whether a recognized Environmental group has a right to check the documents granting municipal permissions to private builders. The said environmental group contended that they believe that the construction by the builders within the cantonment was illegal and thus asked for the inspection of the municipal documents giving permissions. However, the Cantonment Board refused the group to inspect the relevant documents. This made the environmental group file petition in court. The Court after hearing the environmental group easily permitted them to inspect documents that granted permission to the builder.
In India where large segments of the population are poor, uneducated, ignorant, and not aware of their legal rights, the right to information plays a vital role in protecting their interests and rights. However, non-disclosure of information has become a norm in India, and transparency an exception. Corruption and bribery by government officials or public authorities are widespread and have become a common phenomenon in India. Thus, the right to information is the only weapon left with the citizens of our country to check the corrupt practices of the government and make it accountable for its decisions and actions.