Right to Information: What is still missing?

When the Right to Information Act was passed in 2005, it was hailed as a huge victory and a means of facilitating smoother and greater participation of the masses at the grassroots level in governance and decision-making. RTI was the output of a long term struggle for sustenance of livelihood and was to be used as an input in demanding accountability.

Described as a ‘bureaucratic coup’, RTI was considered as a major milestone in lifting the veil of secrecy that the government was shrouded in as it overrode the Official Secrets Act, 1923. According to various academicians and members of the civil society, the RTI legislation passed in India fulfills many parameters that are agreed upon as essential for any disclosure law.

In November2011, the Act will complete six years of existence. While many faceless citizens have benefited from this act and used this as a weapon in their struggle against the authorities, a major problem that continues to exist is lack of stringent provisions for the protection of whistleblowers.

The matter first arose in 2005, after the murder of Satyendra Dubey, who had blown the whistle on corruption in National Highways Authority of India. The Supreme Court then said that the Government should either put in place an Act or at least some administrative procedures for entertaining complaints of whistle blowers and protecting them from any possible harm.

Subsequently, pending legislation on the subject, the government issued an administrative order known as the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection of Informer (PIDPI) resolution by which the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) was empowered to entertain complaints from a whistle blower from any part of the Central government or its Public Sector Undertakings.

However, according to many lawyers and RTI activists, the CVC had failed to live up to the expectations of acting as an institutional bulwark against corruption. More specifically, it had failed to utilize its powers and functions to supervise the functioning of the CBI and its role as an institution to which whistle blowers could turn for action against corrupt officers or for protection.

In July 2010 Amit Jethwa, an RTI activist, was shot dead in Ahmadabad by two unidentified gunmen opposite Gujarat High Court. He was working actively active in the Gir Forest area and had filed several court cases against illegal mining in the protected area while also naming several politicians in his appeals. Various RTI activists reacted sharply to the incident and felt that absence of any law for their protection was an impediment in their use of the law.
More recently, Shehla Masood, another RTI activist was shot dead by unidentified gunmen outside her residence and the culprits have still not been found.

Even though investigations into these cases are on, many NGOs and social activists are demanding stringent laws that guarantee whistle blower protection. But will they get it?

Sarah Zia