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We now have the right to information. Really.

December 24, 2003

A quiet revolution is taking place in this country. And most of us have remained oblivious to it. This is about the right to information. Seven states -- Goa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi -- have already passed legislation aimed at protecting the citizen's right to information. And now even the Centre has passed the Freedom of Information Act.

What does the right to information do? Consider the following. A south-western village in Rajasthan recently saw how the corrupt officers of its Panchayat were brought to book. A road that according to the Panchayat officials had been constructed actually did not exist.

The money allocated for the road project had been gobbled up by greedy and corrupt officers and contractors. But the records showed that the road had been constructed with the help of the money released by the state administration.

The villagers helped by some activist friends sought the information on the money allocated, wages paid to workers for constructing the road and the officers involved with the implementation of the project. Such information is not easily available. But with the help of the right to information Act, the villagers got hold of all the details and confronted the authorities.

An open house was conducted in which workers whose names had figured in the official documents for having received wages for constructing the road were paraded. They declared that neither did they work for the project, nor any money was received by them. It was clear that the documents had been forged.

In any case, the road for which they were supposed to have got the money did not exist. The Panchayat officers and contractors were caught and disciplinary action was initiated against them.

That was in Rajasthan. What happened in Delhi was even more startling. In the trans-Yamuna residential area of the country's capital city, several residents were falling sick after drinking water supplied by Delhi Jal Board. The residents suspected that leakage in pipes might have led to contamination of the drinking water with sewerage. Several complaints were made, but there was no response.

It was only after these residents used the right to information Act of the Delhi government and sought details on the status of their complaints and the names of officials responsible for the problems that Delhi Jal Board woke up. The broken pipes were repaired in two days of filing the application under the Act and Delhi Jal Board even conducted drinking water tests at various points of distribution in the area.

In north Delhi, a woman belonging to the below-the-poverty-line (BPL) segment of society had been buying wheat and rice from the local fair price shop at the market price. Whenever she would ask the shop owner about her quota of rice or wheat to be made available at the subsidised price of Rs 2-3 per kg, she would be told that the supplies had not arrived.

One fine morning, the woman decided to approach the food department of the Delhi government and sought information about the details of wheat and rice she had been getting from her fair price shop as a BPL member during the last one year.

Within days, she was told that the records showed that she was buying her quota of subsidised rice and wheat from the designated fair price shop. She contested this claim as she could prove with her receipts that what she had bought from that fair price shop owner was wheat and rice at the market price. The fair price shop owner was caught and punished. The woman began getting her wheat and rice at the subsidised price.

There are many more such examples in Delhi and other states. All these show that the right to information Act is becoming an instrument that not only empowers the common citizens, but it also has the potential of rooting out corruption from the system. What's more, the bureaucracy for the first time has been made directly responsible for taking decisions and making information available.

For instance, the law stipulates that an officer failing to furnish the information within the stipulated time will be fined for the delay and the penalty amount would be deducted from his salary.

There are problems. There is very little information and public awareness about the people's right to information. It is not even clear whether the Union government's Freedom of Information Act has been notified.

Also, there are concerns over the fees that a common man has to pay for getting information about a public service. The scope and coverage of the right to information law is also a debatable issue. Should the privatised public utilities be subjected to the provision of the law?

Social activists also point out that legislation on the right to information can be effective only when the law enforcement agencies create an environment where citizens feel secure and are not physically threatened by vested interests. This became an issue even in the capital city of Delhi some months ago.

But most significantly, the issue that needs to be focused now is the need for setting up a proper easily retrievable system of storing information in each government department. Today, most government departments have no proper method of storing information.

Unless the latest technologies are used to put in place an information storage system, no amount of enforcement of the right to information Act can be of much help.

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