A retired railway employee, Ramesh, could not understand why there were deductions in his pension statement. Upon asking around at his old department he did not get a clear answer but was able to figure out that the ministry had levied some ‘mysterious’ tax on many ex-employees.
Angered at this unilateral decision taken by his old employers, he decided to challenge it. But in order to do so, he would need more information on the nature of this tax and his employer’s reason for levying it. He remembered reading about right to information in the newspapers and decided to search for more information on the internet.
Right to Ask for Information
Indian law guarantees freedom of speech and expression. This right is not just to express one’s opinion but also to receive information and a plurality of views, which further lets citizen express informed opinion. This right to receive information has been expressed in the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act).
Further, in a democratic setup, government offices are agents of the public, conducting public acts. In such cases, the citizens have a right to know about every public act carried out by government bodies and to exercise this democratic facet, the RTI Act plays an important role. It allows citizens to seek information from constitutional authorities, bodies set up by Acts of Parliament or State legislatures, and even non-governmental bodies that are substantially financed by the government. In some cases, even private bodies who receive over 95% infrastructure funds from the government have been considered to come under the ambit of this law.
Apart from asking information, the law even allows citizens to inspect government documents, government works and take samples of materials of any government work.
However, it is pertinent to note that not all information may be covered under this law. Like every right granted under the constitution, even this right comes with certain reasonable restrictions. There might be cases where the authority to whom the application is made may refuse your application because the information you requested falls under the category of ‘exempted information’. Some examples of exempted information include information that would expose whistleblowers or endanger lives, information that would affect the security and economic interests of the government with another country, information that would harm commercial interests, etc.
Who to Ask Information From?
The RTI Act has made provision for a Public Information Officer (PIO) to be set up in every government body who is responsible for receiving and managing applications under this law (also known as RTI Applications). The PIO is also the one who takes a decision on RTI Applications and send replies to them.
In Ramesh’s case, he can make an application to the PIO at the Ministry of Railways specifically requesting information on this new tax. The PIO would reply back with the information within 30 days of receiving the application.
How to Make Right To Information Application
An RTI application can either be made by sending an application by post or filling the form available online. If the application is made by post, it must be accompanied by a Rs. 10/- postal order. If the applicant is below poverty line, then application fees need not be paid. For online applications, there are various methods to pay online.
Reply to the RTI Application
The PIO has to respond to the application within 30 days with the information requested. However, in cases such as Ramesh’s, if one is not satisfied with the reply, or doesn’t get a reply within 30 days, the law allows you to file an appeal to an officer higher in rank to the PIO. If the applicant is not satisfied with the decision of the first appeal, a second appeal can be made either to the State Information Commission or the Central Information Commission.
However, in case the information was refused, the responsibility to prove whether the PIO’s refusal was justified or not lies only on the PIO.
While assessing the application if the PIO needs to make copies of any documents to send to the applicant, the PIO will ask him to pay the cost of photocopying those documents accordingly. Apart from this, there are no other additional costs. For instance, Ramesh’s application that requested information on the new tax was available in a notification issued by the ministry. The PIO requested Ramesh to pay the cost of photocopying it and nothing more.
RTI – Achieving Access to Justice
At times the process of approaching a government body or an officer to ask questions might be a daunting process. Some might even give in to intimidation and not be able to access what is rightfully theirs. In such cases, to solve this problem and to make access to justice easier the RTI has proven to be a valuable asset for everyone.
In the last 13 years of its existence, the law on right to information has empowered many people with either just a few clicks of buttons or by a simple postal application. Be it a retired railway employee like Ramesh, who accessed information on his pension deductions, or any other person looking for information, records or samples of government work.
It allows citizens to approach their authorities without any fear and without the involvement of any intermediaries in a simple and user-friendly manner, be it online or by post. This not only speeds up the process but also increases transparency in the functioning leading to good governance.