PUCL Bulletin, Oct. 2000

Right to Information and Empowerment of the People

-- By R M Pal

The Union Government has introduced a bill. "The Freedom of Information Bill" in parliament. The bill is "to provide for freedom to every citizen to secure access to information under the control of the public authorities. Consistent with public matters, in order to promote openness, transparency, and accountability in administration and in relation to matters connected therewith or incidental thereto".

An important question that needs to be answered is: why do we need a separate law for freedom of information since it is already provided for an article 19 (1) (A) of our Constitution, which reads: "All citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression". Freedom of information, it is obvious, is guaranteed by the above constitutional provision.

One simple answer to this quest ion is that in spite of Constitutional Provisions, which guarantee fundamental rights, we have not been able to create a culture and climate where values of freedom, rights and a democratic way of life are respected. What we have achieved is that we have erected a fairly impressive looking structure on a very shaky foundation, a foundation made have, as Jayaprakash Narayan said, sand and we call this democratic governance. One of the purposes of making laws like the right to information, which is primarily a human right, is to help create this culture.

Another immediate question that would arise from the above assumption is: can laws create a climate for a democratic way of life? Laws by themselves are not adequate; what is needed is that such progressive laws must be backed by people's movements. A law for right to information can be made effective only through people's movements. We may recall what Raja Rammohun Roy said in the context of the abolition of the Sati system: A mere enactment of a law, without creating a peoples movement, will not succeed in abolishing the cruel system.

Let us be clear in this regard. In spite of all pious wishes and laws. We have not been able to make widow remarriage a reality, abolish untouchability, reduce atrocities committed on Dalits and tribals, uplift women, introduce compulsory basic education, and so on, even though all these are the sources of the worst type of human rights violations, The fact remains that the mindset which stands in the way of progress has to be changes; social movements backed by an appropriate philosophy, a philosophy of freedom can bring about a change in the mindset.

It is in the above context that we may examine the whole question of right to information, which has a larger purpose than merely seeking information from the government. It is often said that a demand for right to information is made only by the middle class or that it will bring benefit only to the privileged section of our people. This is a totally erroneous view. The movement started, for example, by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), grassroots organization founded by Aruna Roy, Shankar Singh, and Nikhil Dey in rural Rajasthan, should make it clear that it is tha poor and marginalized sections of our people who need the right to information. (Soon after its registration in 1990, MKSS's ranks grew-all its members are marginal peasants and landless labourers). It is common knowledge, for example, that government grants meant for the relief of the poor do not reach them. In fact, it is acknowledged by government and its agencies.

MKSS started organizing Jan sunawais (public hearings) - a new methodology for fighting corruption. A sunawai would start with the demand that people must have the fundamental right to information about all actions and decisions of the government and its agencies. They would demand copies of all documents, which concerned the people for a people's audit. This demand leads to a larger aspect of the movement.

The next important aspect of the Jan sunawais organized by MKSS id that the so-called illiterate people realized that they ought to depend on themselves and solve their ownproblems-in short, they realized that they can of a new system of a genuine democratic governance on a solid foundation based make their own destiny. This confidence - that can make his own destiny - would lead to the establishment on the concept of decentralization of power - to the people.

MKSS experiment centres around total decentralization - power to the people, power to the village unit. The MKSS movement., in course of time, would lead to the establishment of a decentralized State of local republics which will be mini states in their functions as they affect local life. In this sphere all the members of the society would be able to participate directly and effectively in the decision making process. Most of our intellectuals and activists do talk about democratic alternatives, but vaguely; their alternatives are within the present system, which has degenerated into an unprincipled and diabolical scramble for power, and has given rise to criminalisation and corruption in electoral politics. What the MKSS is trying to do is to bring about a revolution from below. It is a genuine people's movement in that it does not aim at capturing power; it is making efforts to empower the people, help the people to help themselves. Once empowered the people will be able to solve their own problems by themselves. Such a movement backed by a philosophy of freedom of self reliance, will usher in a revolution from below with a view to establishing a government of the people, by the people, but not for on behalf of the people. Such a structure will lead to decentralization of power. The MKSS movement ought to convince the status-quoists - that the ideal of decentralization - power to the people-is not an unattainable goal, not an Eldorado that will remain in the realm of imagination only.

Given this form of government, people can fight corruption directly and effectively. The Right to Information movement should be viewed in the context of the common people in our country, even though illiterate, being capable of thinking for themselves and of making their own destiny. Our common people do not need a "leader"; they want philosopher- guides.

It is in the context of people's power discussed above that we may examine the bill. "The Freedom of Information Act 1999", specially with regard to certain categories of information that are exempt form disclosure (Exemption from Disclosure of Information). These include: (i) information that would "prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India"; (ii) information which would "affect the conduct of Centre - State relations" (iii) information relating to cabinet papers; (iv) internal working papers containing notes and correspondence; (v) information which would "prejudicially affect public safety and order". (vi) Information relating to trade or commercial secrets; (viii) information which would "prejudicially affect the management of personal of public authorities and their operations; (viii) information which would "result in the breach of privileges of parliament or the legislation of a State, contravention of an order of court of competent jurisdiction".

As I have already mentioned, the right to information is guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. This fundamental right can be curbed only in accordance with the provisions of Articles 19 92) which reads: "Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the Security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, Public order, Defamation or incitement to an offence".

It should be obvious that the exemptions included in the bill go far beyond what Article 19(2) prescribes. Furthermore, "subject to morality" is a dicey proposition. What is "immoral" today may not be so tomorrow. Then, why should information exchanges between the centre and the States may be not available. After all matters relating to centre State decision affect the public; and yet such decisions will not be made public. There is a limit to the authoritarian mindset! We may also remember that the founding fathers of the constitution did not include "the sovereignty and integrity of India". To think that political losses and bureaucrats can think so thoughtlessly: that only they have exclusive right to preserve the integrity of the country"!

In fact, a close scrutiny of the exemptions would indicate that almost everything under the sun can be brought under these provisions by a clever lawyer/ bureaucrat/ politician whose basic philosophy is: it is dangerous to trust the people. One need hardly add that this philosophy and mindset has failed our constitution and progressive laws. I t is hoped, therefore the government, specially the minister of information and broadcasting. Mr. Arun Jaitley will make amendments in the bill keeping in mind that the right to the people can be effective only if the government trusts the people. This writer had the privilege of working with Arun Jaitley during the latter part of the infamous emergency of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and then after her defeat in the 1997 general election during the Janata Party rule in 1977-80. Both of us were members of the People's Union for Civil Liberties. Arun hardly ever missed the regular meetings of the PUCL. He was one of the most radical amongst us, would never compromise with freedom and human rights; he has never apologetic in exposing human rights violations and infringement on civil liberties.

He was one of those who had refused to apologize to the dictatorial government of India and Sanjay Gandhi and preferred to spend nineteen months in jail (unlike quite a few stalwarts of the then Jana Sangha and RSS). One would naturally hope that a man of this background would definitely present a progressive bill in parliament, a law that will ensure a genuinely democratic form of government in which the people will exercise sovereignty. Regrettedly his public utterances in respect of the right to information movement led by Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and their colleagues in Rajasthan, nor has he grasped the fact that if power is given to the people at the grass root level, the fear of any kind of dictatorship that we witnessed during the emergency will disappear. In those days people like Arun Jaitley trusted the people. It will be most unfortunate if they are today guided misplaced patriotism and nationalism. Trust the people, and things will begin to change - to change for the better.

Arun Jaitley and his colleagues in power, in fact, all political rulers in our country, may take note of what M. N. Roy said in the context of power. Decentralization of power, Roy said, is possible if we have confidence in our people. It is true that the common people in our country are illiterate. "yet", Roy said in 1950, "is not a fact that left to themselves, even the most ignorant peasants can manage their affairs better than our present government? The distrust for the ability of the common people to think for themselves and take care of themselves is only a pretext for seizing power in their name and abusing that power to suppress their liberty".

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