India’s Right to Information Act has caught the imagination of its people and the way it has spread here has received the world’s appreciation and admiration. The law has catalysed a great change in the last decade in the power equation between the sovereign citizens of the country and those in power. This change is just the beginning. If we can sustain and strengthen it, our defective elective democracy could metamorphose into a truly participatory democracy within the next decade or two. We have just begun this journey towards a meaningful Swaraj. I believe the media – visual, print and social – and the RTI have provided a fortunately heady mix. They have the potential of actualising the promise of democracy. But there are signs of regressive forces trying to stymie these promises.

I will refer to the two biggest dangers to RTI:

1. Most established institutions are unhappy with RTI. When the power equation changes between those with power and the ordinary citizen, resistance is to be expected. Everyone in power generally feels transparency is good for others, whereas they should be left to work effectively. It is implied that transparency is a hindrance to good governance.

The former prime minister, harried by the uncovering of various scams by RTI, said at the Central Information Commission’s convention in October 2012: “There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose.”

The present prime minister has taken pre-emptive action by not appointing a Chief Information Commissioner at all to render the position dysfunctional. The bureaucracy is also hardening its stand and has realised that in most cases the Information Commissioners are not really committed to transparency. This, coupled with the long wait at the Commissions and the reluctance of the Commissions in imposing penalties, is slowly making it difficult to get sensitive information that could aid citizens in exposing structural shortcomings or corruption.

A former Chief Justice of India said in April 2012, “The RTI Act is a good law but there has to be a limit to it.” I am amazed at the suggestion that there should be a limit to RTI beyond what has been laid down in the law by Parliament in terms of exemptions. Any interpretation beyond what is written in the law will be a violation of citizens’ fundamental right to information.

We have travelled some distance away from the statement made by a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India in S P Gupta v. President of India & Ors. (AIR 1982 SC 149). “There can be little doubt that exposure to public gaze and scrutiny is one of the surest means of achieving a clean and healthy administration. It has been truly said that an open government is clean government and a powerful safeguard against political and administrative aberration and inefficiency.”

2. A greater danger comes from the selection of Information Commissioners as part of political patronage. Most have no predilection for transparency or work. Their orders are often biased against transparency and in many places a huge backlog is getting built as a consequence of their inability to cope. Consequently, a law which seeks to ensure giving information to citizens in 30 days on pain of penalty gets stuck for over a year at the Commissions.

Most of these Commissioners do not work to deliver results in a time-bound manner and lose all moral authority to penalise Public Information Officers who do not work in a time-bound manner. Commissioners are slowly working less and less. In the Central Information Commission, six Commissioners had disposed of 22,351 cases in 2011, whereas in 2014 seven Commissioners disposed of only 16,006 cases!

Civil society and media are rightly critical of the government for not appointing the balance four Commissioners, but at the current rate of disposal 11 Commissioners will not dispose of over 25,000 cases a year. In 2014 the Central Information Commission received 31,000 cases and presently has a pendency of over 38,000 cases. It is evident that at this languorous pace of working, RTI will slowly become like the Consumer Act – mainly in existence for the Commissioners. Citizens must wake up from their slumber and focus on getting Commissioners who will dispose of over 6,000 cases each year and give clear signals that they will not tolerate tardiness from Public Information Officers or other Commissioners.

Eternal vigilance is the price for democracy. We have a very useful tool to make our democracy meaningful and effective. It will work and grow if we struggle to ensure its health. We need to put pressure on various institutions so that they restrain from constricting our right, ensure a transparent process of selection for Commissioners and adequate disposal of cases at the Commissions. If we are lazy, this right will also putrefy.

The writer is a former Central Information Commissioner.