The Right to Information (RTI) truck leaves the city of Pune, India and makes it way through all the neighboring towns and villages at a slow but steady pace. The main features of this truck are the placards hanging outside of it. Written in the local language, Marathi; they explain what the Indian RTI Act is and what it can do for citizens. The truck makes stops in local meeting places such as markets and town centers to educate citizens about RTI through videos and written materials.
RTI is considered to be widely used in the state of Maharashtra where this truck operates. On a recent trip, I understood just how prolific RTI in Maharashtra is.
In this particular state, the crusade for RTI was initially waged by anti-corruption activists. Now, the government itself is playing a proactive role in strengthening RTI implementation.
Ahmednagar, a district in Maharashtra, is considered a model in its application of RTI. District officials are passionate about this law and have gone beyond even RTI requirements and made more information proactively available.
As well, an RTI Resource Office, operated by the Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration but housed in Ahmednagar District Government Headquarters, is a physical space where citizens can come to seek assistance on filling out a RTI application. Posters on the wall show the format of an RTI application letter. When the office is closed, citizens can call a mobile number to speak with someone for assistance on filing an application.
RTI, while often considered a fundamental right, is not always the most urgent demand of citizens from their government. Rob Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz describe the state of RTI, from the perspective of rights advocates:
It is invoked dutifully rather than passionately. The right to information has an undeniably old-fashioned ring to it. It is…a “first-generation” civil-political right, one which elaborates, but does not appear to redefine, the individual citizen’s relationship to the state. It is understandable that rights advocates, steeped in the rhetoric of “ground realities”, should be less than enthusiastic about something which lacks the immediacy of struggles to obtain “second-generation” rights, such as demands that the state recognize a right to basic economic necessities like food, shelter, education and healthcare.
India’s RTI Act, enacted in 2005, entitles its citizens with the right to request information from any public authority at the Central and State level. The legislation is comprehensive. All relevant public authorities must appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO) to handle all written information requests from citizens. The PIO must fill information requests within 30 days. (Information requests that affect the life and liberty of the applicant must be addressed within 48 hours.) Failure to do so within this time frame is treated as a refusal and the applicant has grounds to appeal to another official within the same agency.
The legislation is also user-friendly. It costs less than 25 cents (US) to file a request plus the costs of photocopying, if any. Paying this small fee helps to prevent abuse of RTI but fees are waived for applicants who fall below poverty line. The process is simplified and application forms are standardized. As well, the legislation requires records to be computerized to facilitate dissemination. Most importantly, government agencies are required to make certain categories of information available proactively, allowing access to this information without having to file a formal request.
This legislation is important but ultimately, the actual use of this legislation is what makes it effective. The more citizens use it, the more effective it can be. In India, citizens use RTI to see documents that impact their access to entitlements such as wages, rations, and public works projects.
Practices such as citizen-friendly education campaigns and resource centers promise to breathe life into RTI legislation. Ultimately it is these practices that can turn dutiful RTI legislation into a powerful tool for accessing those very important second-generation rights.
The RTI truck makes a stop in Hiware Bazar, a town in Ahmednagar District.
The RTI Resource Office in Ahmednagar District. The poster on the left is a sample of a standard RTI application.