Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Perverse “Right to Information”

| 9 Comments

In a comment to a recent post, “The Games Built on a Cesspool,” the commenter Eroteme says, “We help elect a govt., sit on our hinnies and then find faults with whatever they do. Much like the opposition. Why don’t we demand accounts for all the projects embarked on, all the promises made, all the measures planned to address situations?” and asks, “How many RTIs were filed in the past 7 years demanding to know how well this CWG thing was progressing and where each and every rupee of ours was going?” The question is interesting in what it reveals.

The answer should be, “No RTIs should have been necessary. That information should be routinely available rather than being exceptionally provided.”

I find the RTI — the Right to Information — rather puzzling. The need for an RTI law merely shows that the system is deeply flawed. The RTI is a patch to a buggy system. What it shows is that in the normal course of events, the government owns the information, and citizens have to exert themselves to extract information out of the government as a special favor.

Think about it. The government in a democratic setup is actually there to serve the public. In other words, the government is the agent and the citizens are the principal. Or if you like, the government is the servant and the citizens are the masters. Only when this fact is forgotten by the citizenry is the government able to act as the principal and the citizens meekly submit to it. It should be the norm that the government does what the citizens permit it to do, rather than the other way around where the government lords it over the citizens.

All information of public interest should be available to the public as the default. No special effort should be necessary for a citizen to know what the government is doing with his or her money. Perhaps in the olden days it would have been prohibitively expensive for the information to be freely available. But information technology has advanced sufficiently that it is trivial to publish all the information to be made available without anyone having to petition a government agency to extract some bit of information.

It is time we stopped congratulating ourselves about how wonderful the RTI is and started realizing that we have degraded ourselves to the point where we are actually grateful for the few scraps of information that is thrown our way in response to considerable groveling in front of those whose salaries we pay.

If democracy has any meaning at all, it means that the people are the rulers, and not those who are in the government who actually serve at the pleasure of the people.

  • TK Bakshi

    The RTI should emphasize the right to be informed and not the right to be able to seek information.
    In the present case the govt should have putout their plans for the games and their progress from time to time. That would be besides the proposed methodology and requisite transparency.
    This will be in addition to what has already been put in the blog’

  • http://inagardencalledlife.blogspot.com Eroteme

    Hi Atanu,
    Thanks a tonne for this post. I totally agree with you. It is ridiculous that I have to keep asking for information about things that concern me. Which is why I (kinda) said that we should keep getting an account of what was happening. Some website, some newspaper, some means to continuously get info about each and everything that the ruling govt. does is what we need. One step further would be to provide all the basis and information _upfront_ and open that to dialogue where citizens can even question the interpretation of data that the govt. proposes (e.g. the govt. could provide grain reserve info and then propose we should be increasing exports while citizens could recommend fair distribution within the country before considering exports). RTI is indeed a patchy thing and the sheer rigmarole before we can get something so simple is unbearable. But that has not been used, is the point in my previous comment! We haven’t setup websites/papers/etc. where any govt. ruling at the centre (and at the state level) HAS TO update with their information and accounts of activities undertaken. Not having done that, we also do not utilise instruments such as RTI which cannot be bypassed because we think RTI is not the ideal. It isn’t, but have we strove to create the ideal? While the ideal is being created (assumption) why hasn’t anyone bothered to use the instruments available?
    RTI is an implicit sanction to the govt. to hide information till someone is curious enough to ask (and then make it so onerous to get). Can we do something to make RTIs look prehistoric? While that is being done, how do we justify the 7-year sleep?

  • http://www.indianliberals.org Ashish Deodhar

    Hi Atanu

    Thanks for this post. I must admit I didn’t see the RTI in this light. You are absolutely right.

  • http://ketanpanchal.blogspot.com Ketan

    I had read a very similar idea, but I am not remembering if it was on your blog or Offstumped’s. But anyway, just like Ashish above, the first time I had read about it, I was quite taken aback that something so simple had missed my attention.

  • centerofright

    You hit the nail. There should be a transparent govt. Even the CAG Audit reports are woefully way behind by years.

  • http://vishwakarman.wordpress.com Karthik Rao Cavale

    The Right to Information Act does say that government departments are expected to proactively disclose information – unfortunately there hasn’t been much implementation of that clause. Ideally CIC would be empowered to conduct inspections of information-sharing activities of government departments.

    However, proactive disclosure cannot be only online disclosure. Printed reports will have to be available for inspection by all citizen at government offices – clearly this requires additional infrastructure.

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  • Nitin Suresh

    I completely agree with you ATANU..the citizens have become armchair critics.In place like Singapore where Youth olympics were held recently the games were not of an OC or a govt but of citizens at large.Lets all make this games a huge success and show the white skinned what we can do..Also let us send advance parties to UK for lOndon olympics and to australia when cricket is held theere to check the security and hygiene..By allowing such inspections we have degraded ourselves

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Nitin Suresh, I don’t see how those who came to inspect the hygiene of the Games Village could have had a case unless the hygiene was indeed abysmal. It was not the inspectors who degraded us; the Indians who were in charge of the CWG degraded us. They are the guilty party, not those who came to inspect the drains.

      Some years ago some news reports exposed the antics of members of parliament. I wrote about it in a post in December 2005 “Monkeys Running the Circus“. Here are some relevant bits:

      A handful of members of parliament (MP) were caught taking bribes in a sting operation by a website called Cobrapost. Report of politicians taking bribes is as astonishingly novel as the news that bears do potty in the woods, or that Michael Jackson is weird. They are a seriously depraved lot (the politcians, not the bears) and it would appear that that level of depravity is not just mandatory but required. In India, real politicians are thugs and crooks. Those who are not are mere amateurs who don’t belong among the professionals. So Cobraposts revelations that MPs have accepted bribes to ask questions in the parliament is not news, merely detail.

      What really astonishes is the reaction of the MPs to being caught red-handed. Only in the realm of fiction and satire would you normally expect that sort of reaction. In real life, you would dismiss it entirely out of hand.

      Three days ago, the MPs have demanded that the media be investigated to determine what their motive was in exposing the mendacity of the MPs. The members argued that the media had no business to expose the greed of the MPs and thus lower the dignity of the House.

      They said that Cobrapost sold the report exposing the dishonest MPs to TV channels and therefore action must be taken against – and here is the astonishing part – the whistle-blowers. Gives an entirely new meaning to the Hindi saying ulta chor kotwal ko daten (“instead the crook reprimands the police”). They said that this expose attempts to defame the Parliament. The speaker of the House, Mr Somnath Chatterjee, said that “as the House is the most important body in the whole country … we have to maintain its dignity.”

      Mr Chatterjee said that “we must see that the dignity of this House is never affected or prejudiced by anybody whether inside or outside. Therefore, if necessary we should do some self-introspection.”

      Good idea even though I am not sure, if “introspection” means what I think it does, what “self-introspection” means.

      Now it gets even more bizarre. So far we know that some crooked politicians accepted bribes and were exposed by the media. It takes a peculiar sort of brazenness to then claim that the media is at fault and is responsible for diminishing the stature of the House. And the action to be taken? Why, bar reporters from the Central Hall of the Parliament! That is what one MP recommended. And I suppose if we totally ban the reporting of any crimes committed by politicians in the country, the country will truly prosper.

      I hope I have made my point.