TEN YEARS OF RTI WHAT DO WE KNOW?

Down to Earth - - OPINION - PRASHANT SHARMA

THERE WAS in­deed rea­son to celebrate. It was 2005. A new law had come into be­ing.One which would give or­di­nary peo­ple the ex­tra­or­di­nary power to ques­tion the gov­ern­ment on a daily ba­sis.One which in one fell swoop would hack away the os­si­fied lay­ers of opac­ity that char­ac­terised gov­ern­ment de­ci­sion-mak­ing. One which would change the power dy­namic be­tween the citizen and the state by plac­ing peo­ple at the cen­tre of the demo­cratic process. One which would make an ar­bi­trary and ve­nal state more re­spon­sive to the needs and as­pi­ra­tions of cit­i­zens.And of course, one that would rid our coun­try of the scourge of cor­rup­tion that was im­mutably en­trenched in the body politic. We know that we love rights. And in­deed, the rti has brought us much joy. Sev­eral large (and small) scan­dals have been ex­posed through its use. Many en­ti­tle­ments have been pro­vided when it has been used, at times even at the prospect of it be­ing used. Scarcely a day goes by with­out a men­tion of the rti in the news.It has brought in a pal­pa­ble sense of em­pow­er­ment in the lives of many or­di­nary In­di­ans, not to men­tion ac­tivists and citizen groups. We even have a new kind of so­cial worker – the rti Ac­tivist. We know that we love the right to know. But 10 years later, we also know a few other things. We know that the gov­ern­ment that brought in the Act presided over the great­est cor­rup­tion scan­dals that the coun­try has ever known.We know that with thou­sands of ap­peals wait­ing to be heard (re­gard­less of whether the Chief In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner has been ap­pointed or not), a piece of leg­is­la­tion that had been sup­pos­edly de­signed to en­sure ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion is col­laps­ing

un­der its own weight. (We al­ready knew it, some would say, given the state of our ju­di­cial sys­tem.) We know that po­lit­i­cal par­ties love to take credit for the rti, but are loath to sub­mit to it.We know that ngos love the rti, but rarely make public de­tails of their fi­nances and func­tion­ing any­where close to the ex­tent which they want the gov­ern­ment to.We know that the media uses the rti with great gusto, but we do not know who owns the media, and we cer­tainly can­not use the rti Act to find that out. Per­haps we also know that we don’t re­ally know a lot. But we do know that we are liv­ing in a pe­riod of great trans­for­ma­tion.And amidst all the churn­ing and tur­moil, we know that the rti is our brah­mas­tra. We know that the more we use the rti, the stronger we be­come. With the rti we can prove ev­ery day that the state is ar­bi­trary, in­ef­fi­cient and cor­rupt, and us­ing it keeps the state in its place.We are re­lieved.We are em­pow­ered. But so is the other. Be­cause the more we show the state to be in­ef­fi­cient and cor­rupt, the eas­ier it be­comes to out­source, con­tract-out, hy­bridise and pri­va­tise.

We may think we know what good ac­tion is, but we can still harm our­selves un­know­ingly.

At the same time, there is noth­ing in­her­ently im­moral or un­eth­i­cal about out­sourc­ing and pri­vati­sa­tion. That the state must fo­cus pri­mar­ily on reg­u­la­tion and en­sur­ing the rule of law, and leave im­ple­men­ta­tion to other ac­tors is not an in­valid ar­gu­ment. Con­se­quently, if a non-state en­tity pro­vides public goods and ser­vices eq­ui­tably and ef­fi­ciently, there is noth­ing in­trin­si­cally wrong in that.But when it doesn’t, what can we do? We can no longer sum­mon the rti to our res­cue.The brah­mas­tra lies in­ert as it was de­signed to work only against the state. Then how do we hold to ac­count a pri­vate en­tity per­form­ing public func­tions? Per­haps as con­sumers. Per­haps as share­hold­ers.But as cit­i­zens? Do we know whether we are con­sumers, or share­hold­ers, or cit­i­zens? It would be easy to blame the state and protest (yet again) that

When we talk about trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, why do we think only of the state? Is the state the only lo­ca­tion of power? And if it is not, should we not be think­ing about hold­ing power to ac­count rather than the state?

the demo­cratic space is shrink­ing, that in­sti­tu­tions are be­ing com­pro­mised, that big cap­i­tal rules our lives. But per­haps it is here that we need to look within. To what ex­tent have our own ‘good’ ac­tions in the past un­know­ingly (or know­ingly) con­trib­uted to the chal­lenges of the present? We fetishised leg­is­la­tion as a panacea for all man­ner of ills, know­ing fully well that the abil­ity of the ju­di­ciary to de­liver timely jus­tice was next to im­pos­si­ble.We re­stricted our no­tion of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change to bring­ing in new laws and rights know­ing fully well that the state does not have the ca­pac­ity to im­ple­ment any of it widely or ef­fec­tively.We lim­ited our de­mands for trans­parency only to the state be­cause it was po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent to do so. We saw no harm in com­pro­mis­ing in­sti­tu­tions and pro­cesses in our haste to make the best of “win­dows of op­por­tu­nity”. Be­cause we knew we were do­ing good and chang­ing the world. We will­ingly and know­ingly played the game.And it was worth it. Be­cause we wanted to have the state and beat it too. Might it be true that a lit­tle knowl­edge is in­deed a dan­ger­ous thing? Be­cause as things un­fold in the full­ness of time, they of­ten don’t go ac­cord­ing to script. Es­pe­cially once in­sti­tu­tions and pro­cesses have been com­pro­mised. Once that ge­nie is out of the bot­tle, it’s about who pos­sesses the lamp. And if it’s no longer with us, we go back to our com­fort zone. We protest. We seek more demo­cratic space (is it ever enough?). We de­mand new leg­is­la­tion.We wait for new “win­dows of op­por­tu­nity”. The cy­cle con­tin­ues.

We think we know how to fix the world, but do we know how we re­late to it?

Per­haps the best way to re­flect upon the first decade of the rti Act might be to in­tro­spect. What is our imag­i­na­tion of the role of the state and our re­la­tion­ship with it? What is the role of the mar­ket and our re­la­tion­ship with it? Is leg­is­la­tion the only way to de­fine and me­di­ate these re­la­tion­ships? When we talk about trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, why do we think only of the state? Is the state the only lo­ca­tion of power? And if it is not, should we not be think­ing about hold­ing power to ac­count rather than the state? And how is this to be done in­di­vid­u­ally, col­lec­tively, and po­lit­i­cally?

Un­til we are will­ing to ex­pand our imag­i­na­tion of so­cial change be­yond rights and leg­is­la­tion, we might dis­cover that the more we know, the less we un­der­stand. The writer is a Fel­low of the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions, New York and Vis­it­ing Re­search Fel­low at the United Na­tions Re­search In­sti­tute for So­cial De­vel­op­ment ( Geneva. He is the au­thor of Democ­racy and Trans­parency in the In­dian State: The Mak­ing of the Right to

In­for­ma­tion Act. He can be reached at prashantx@gmail.com

SORIT / CSE

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