The coronavirus pandemic has bruised the world significantly. In India, the extended lockdowns have slowed down most activities. However, it has also given people more time for contemplation and to get together for discussions and education sessions.
Video conferencing and webinars have been in vogue for many years, but the Covid-19 crisis has pushed these forums to a new level. Previously, most lectures and conferences involved extensive travel. Now, people have suddenly discovered that video meetings, lectures and conferences can be nearly as effective – besides being cheaper and taking up less time.
One of the fields that has taken this opportunity with great enthusiasm are those involved with the Right to Information. By its very nature, this group is not centralised. Hundreds of groups and individuals across India are working to educate citizens about how to use the Right to Information Act effectively to ensure official transparency.
Since the RTI Act was passed in 2005, most people in positions of official authority seem to have developed a strong dislike for it. After all, the legislation empowers the citizen and levels the power equation. However, citizens have promoted the RTI in a very dissipated manner.
But since lockdown, web events about the Act draw in participants from across the length and breadth of India – all sitting in their homes.
Some of these have become weekly meetings of RTI users and activists. I participate in two such groups. One of these is RTI Katta organised by Vijay Kumbhar of Pune. Among those who participate in the meeting are retired senior bureaucrats. An intense exchange of information about various aspects of the RTI Act takes place and there are lively debates about the provisions and implementation of the law.
Recently, this resulted in the discovery that the High Courts of Calcutta and Karnataka have issued judgments mandating that Information Commissions must dispose cases within 45 days. Currently, they take one to three years. As one of the outcomes, a legal notice has been issued to the Maharashtra Information Commission to draw up a roadmap for how they will abide by these directions. Since the Commission has not responded to this in any manner, a PIL is being filed.
There is another group organised by RTI activist Shivanand Dwivedi from Madhya Pradesh. It has the distinction of having Rahul Singh, the current Information Commissioner of Madhya Pradesh, chairing and moderating the discussions.
Such cross-country discussions, with participants from rural areas too, did not occur with this frequency and ease before this. Perhaps the RTI movement will spread faster and draw a lot of energy from using web technologies. I have been participating in both these and can see a definite change in the RTI activists.
Many RTI applications are being filed covering such urgent matters as the purchase prices of masks, Personal Protection Equipment kits, ventilators and other procurements. The information obtained has led to some outrageous scams being prevented, saving a lot of public funds. Queries have also been raised about the availability of medical facilities.
Many RTI applications have sought information from the Railways and other authorities about the fate and neglect of the migrant workers. The nation has been scandalised by the illegal action the PM Cares fund refusing to make information about itself public. They are refusing with the knowledge that they can draw out the legal challenges to their illegal decision.
Even information about the schedules of trains to ferry migrant workers and availability of beds in hospitals was not easily available. leading to anxiety, misery and even loss of life.
But while RTI activists have effectively started using technology and the opportunity presented by the lockdown, most of the Information Commissions that are expected to safeguard the citizen’s fundamental right were laggards at doing their job.
There are a total of 28 State Commissions and one Central Information Commission. A report in May by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Center for Equity Studies found that out of these only the Central Commission and six State Commissions were working using video conferencing. The other 22 Commissions had suspended their work and were enjoying fully paid leave without doing work.
Some of them have now started working after being shamed by citizens. This was despite the fact that the Central Information Commission has been using hearings by video conferencing for over ten years. All Information Commissions must work at full strength or at least have the good sense to accept the elementary principle of “No Work, No Pay”.
Indians have converted this crisis into an opportunity to strengthen our fundamental Right to Information and will pursue this course by combining their strength across the country. It would be good if the Information Commissions would learn and draw inspiration from this example set by citizens.
Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.