India enacted its Right to Information Act at about the same time as the UK's Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000, and campaigners in both countries have much to learn from one another.
India's act is more powerful than its counterpart in the UK, particularly in its use of penalties for delay or non-compliance. Officials who fail to supply information, or delay, face a personal fine of 250 rupees (£3) a day. The UK act gives officials a host of reasons to refuse information on the basis of various exemptions; this provision was strongly and successfully opposed by citizens in India.
There is greater provision in Indian law for access to information from private companies, including those running outsourced agencies. One example of information obtainable in India that would not have been possible to obtain in the UK or the rest of Europe was when a subsidiary of Monsanto was forced to reveal information related to trials of genetically modified crops, which the company had claimed was protected by commercial interest.
The Indian fight for a right to information law emerged out of a series of struggles for survival by poor people. One challenge was to get payment of a statutory minimum wage for people working in the public sector. My organisation, for the empowerment of workers and peasants, called the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), unearthed startling discrepancies between official records and what was actually happening, including dead people's names being added to labour lists, people being entered as working in more than one place at the same time, and people who had never done manual work listed as manual workers. In one landmark hearing, 40 "ghost" workers were discovered. Their money was being pocketed by corrupt middle men. Disclosing records has significantly controlled such blatant fraud and malpractice.
The right to information law has enabled people to ask important questions about government and has unearthed fraud, corruption and poor governance, including, for instance, the Adarsh housing scam in Mumbai, and the marking of university finals in Delhi. It has, ultimately, begun the vital task of redistributing power in a democratic framework.
Over the past three decades of my work with poor rural communities, one of the days I remember most clearly was in 1996, in a town called Beawar, in central Rajasthan. It was the 33rd day of agitation by the MKSS for the Right to Information Act. I remember a lawyer looking at the bedraggled group sitting in protest and saying, with sympathy and cynicism: "This is a good issue. But you will not win this battle. You are asking a corrupt system to voluntarily expose itself. It is impossible. But carry on." That was in 1996 and we got the national law in 2005.
The MKSS has maintained its grass-roots focus, but also keeps in touch with international debates. It is part of the steering group for the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative set up in September 2011 by eight founding governments – Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, the UK and the US – in order to make governments more transparent, effective and accountable.
It is important for leadership to be shared, and to learn from practices in both the north and the south. From participatory planning in Porto Allegre in Brazil and Kerala in India, to the powerful truth and reconciliation process in South Africa and a thriving community radio movement in Nepal, many countries in the south are redefining and reinventing vibrant forms of democratic participation.
• Aruna Roy is a founding member of MKSS, which is supporting the Open Government Partnership conference in Brazil. The Guardian's Public Leaders Network is the digital media partner at the conference. Details: theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/open-government-brasilia-2012
The Right to Information (RTI) Act is a law enacted by the Parliament of India to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens. It was passed by Parliament on 15 June 2005 and came fully into force on 13 October 2005. The RTI Act mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information. It applies to all States and Union Territories of India, except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which is covered under a State-level law.
The Act relaxes the Official Secrets Act of 1889 which was amended in 1923 and various other special laws that restricted information disclosure in India. In other words, the Act explicitly overrides the Official Secrets Act and other laws in force as on 15 June 2005 to the extent of any inconsistency.
Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen (excluding the citizens within J&K) may request information from a 'public authority' (a body of Government or 'instrumentality of State') which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. The Act also requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally.
The RTI Act specifies that citizens have a right to: request any information (as defined); take copies of documents; inspect documents, works and records; take certified samples of materials of work; and obtain information in the form of printouts, diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode.
Prior to the Act being passed by the Parliament, the RTI Laws were first successfully enacted by the state governments of Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Karnataka (2000), Delhi (2001), Maharashtra (2002), Madhya Pradesh (2003), Assam (2002) and Jammu and Kashmir (2004). Some of these State level enactments have been widely used. While the Delhi RTI Act is still in force, Jammu & Kashmir has its own Right to Information Act of 2009, the successor to the repealed J&K Right to Information Act, 2004 and its 2008 amendment.
At the national level, given the experience of state governments in passing practicable legislation, the Central Government appointed a working group under H.D. Shourie to draft legislation. The Shourie draft, in an extremely diluted form, became the basis for the Freedom of Information Bill, 2000 which eventually became law under the Freedom of Information (Fol) Act, 2002. The Fol Act, however, never came into effective force as it was severely criticised for permitting too many exemptions, not only under the standard grounds of national security and sovereignty, but also for requests that would involve 'disproportionate diversion of the resources of a public authority'. Further, there was no upper limit on the charges that could be levied and there were no penalties for not complying with a request for information.
The failure of Fol Act led to sustained pressure for a better National RTI enactment. The first draft of the Right to Information Bill was presented to Parliament on 22 December 2004. Subsequently, more than a hundred amendments to the draft Bill were made before the bill was finally passed. The Law is applicable to all constitutional authorities, including the executive, legislature and judiciary; any institution or body established or constituted by an act of Parliament or a state legislature.
Bodies or authorities established or constituted by order or notification of appropriate government including bodies "owned, controlled or substantially financed" by government, or non-Government organizations "substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds" provided by the government are also covered by the Law. While private bodies are not within the Act's ambit directly, in a landmark decision of 30 November 2006 (Sarbajit Roy versus DERC) the Central Information Commission reaffirmed that privatised public utility companies continue to be within the RTI Act their privatisation notwithstanding.
Under the Act, all authorities covered must appoint their Public Information Officer (PIO). When any person submits a request to the PIO for information in writing, it is the PIO's obligation to provide information. Further, if the request pertains to another public authority (in whole or part) it is the PIO's responsibility to transfer/forward the concerned portions of the request to a PIO of the other authority within five days. In addition, every public authority is required to designate Assistant Public Information Officers (APIOs) to receive RTI requests and appeals for forwarding to the PIOs of their public authority.
The RTI Act specifies that a citizen making the request is not obliged to disclose any information except his/her name and contact particulars. The Act also specifies time limits for replying to the request. If the request has been made to the PIO, the reply is to be given within 30 days of receipt. In the case of APIO, the reply is to be given within 35 days of receipt. If the request is transferred by to PIO to another public authority the time allowed to reply is computed from the day on which it is received by the PIO of the transferee authority.
In case of information concerning corruption and Human Rights violations by scheduled Security agencies, the time limit is 45 days but with the prior approval of the Central Information Commission. However, if life or liberty of any person is involved, the PIO is expected to reply within 48 hours.
The information under RTI has to be paid for except for Below Poverty Level Card (BPL Card) holders. Hence, the reply of the PIO is necessarily limited to either denying the request (in whole or part) and/ or providing a computation of further fees. The time between the reply of the PIO and the time taken to deposit the further fees for information is excluded from the time allowed. If information is not provided within the time limit, it is treated as deemed refusal. Refusal with or without reasons may be ground for appeal or complaint. Further, information not provided in the times prescribed is to be provided free of charge.
Considering that providing each and every information asked for under the Act may severely jeopardise national interest, some exemptions to disclosure are provided for in the Act. Information which has been expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of court; information, the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature; information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party.
Information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship; information received in confidence from foreign Government; information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders; and cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers are some of the exemptions. Notwithstanding any of these exemptions, a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.
The officer who is the head of all the information under the Act is Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). At the end of year CIC is required to present a report which contains: the number of requests made to each public authority; the number of decisions when applicants were not given permission to access to the documents which they request, the provisions of the Act under which these decisions were made and the number of times such provisions were filed; details of disciplinary action taken against any officer in respect of the administration of the Act; and the amount of charges collected by each public authority under the Act.