India, Original Articles

RTI: Information comes at a price

In a nation of a million diversities, a motley of ‘representatives’, who claim to represent every caste and sub class in India are the official edifice that showcase a secular India to the world. The official India is one that conjures mega projects, passes huge loan waivers, signs mammoth defence contracts, talks about record all-inclusive growth, and makes new laws that champion grand ideals.

The real India, the one of grime and dust lives in a parallel dimension, where unsurprisingly most of the grandiose does not trickle down to the mortals. Accountability and transparency is one of the primary reasons for this droplet effect. So, when the Government in its infinite wisdom decided to declassify its secretive-for-everyone’s-good act (we call it governance) and passed the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 it was heralded as the ultimate weapon for the common man. The governed finally had to power to question the people who govern. As for the government, busy basking in the glory of getting the act passed, forgot to talk about the unstated proviso, “The information you seek, will kill you.”

Over the past ten months, twelve RTI activists were murdered across India and others seriously attacked because they sought information under the RTI that is supposed to be available to them by law. The most recent attack, the case of Arun Mane who was pursuing the case of fellow RTI activist Satish Shetty (murdered in April).  A scared and shattered Mane gave out a statement “I will only say one thing; that a person with a sound mind should not fall into this (RTI thing). There is no point in standing up for the truth. I do not wish to say anything further. I am not in a condition to answer any of your queries.” The final declaration for surrender from a man cauterized and left alone to his throes does not bode well for the blasé Indian bourgeois.

In a country where the law minister calls the murdered activists ‘RTI Martyrs’ and then insults their death by saying “Cases of intimidation and violence are “isolated”, the Act is losing its credibility. Factions in the government are hitting back and multitudes of departments are seeking exemptions to the RTI. The act that changed India’s babu-culture from one of clandestine opaqueness to one, that at least has an avenue to become transparent is being slowly retrograded. If the act must survive and remain relevant, it must change.

Wiki Leaks and Julian Assange built the idea of making troves of information available by successfully tapping the most personal form of media available to us, the Internet. The question germane to the Indian populace is whether RTI can metamorphose into a more Wiki Leaks avatar where information is a click away. Can the network and telephony be channelized to coalesce with the act to truly empower the common man?

For, if that happens, the RTI will no longer be the cursed portal where uncomfortable questions are lost in heaps of files that are conveniently burnt or stolen, activists are murdered and lone crusaders surrender. Instead, it will forever be the potent bottomless, virtual drop box for vast trenches of information, accessible and espoused by all.

It is a long shot, but if it rouses a clamour from a horde of young India, it may well render the term ‘lone crusader’ redundant. And just for that, it’s worthy cause to be taken up.