History of Right to Information Act in India

By Divya Jyoti Jaipuriar, Adv.

The Right to Information movement has begun in India when the activists in in Rajasthan to get accountability in the functioning of the state government in early 1990s. People started to question the expenditure by the government and also sought explanation for their non-functioning. This movement, then spread over to other parts of the country and became a massive movement whereby demand from all quarters started to emerge for transparency in Governance.

The movement of Right to information also got impetus from various Supreme Court judgments.  The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has also interpreted fundamental rights incorporated in articles 19 (1) (a) and 21 of the Constitution of India and said that the Right to Information is the fundamental right of the citizens of India. Supreme Court also took a view that in a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor, which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions, which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security. But the legislative wing of the State did not respond to it by enacting suitable legislation for protecting the right of the people for long.

It was only in 1996, Justice P B Sawant, Chairman of the Press Council of India at that time, drafted a bill in this regard. This bill took all governmental and non-governmental entities, which perform public functions, into the purview of the Right to information. On 2nd January 1997, Government of India set up a working group on Right to Information and Promotion of Open and Transparent Government’ under the chairmanship of Mr. H D Shouri. The committee came up with detailed report and Draft Freedom of Information Bill on 24th May 1997. This draft provided that not only the Central and the State Ministries, but also public sector undertakings, municipal bodies and panchayats and other bodies substantially funded by Government, would come within the purview of the Act. Later the Consumer Education Research Council (CERC) draft also came up. It was by far the most detailed proposed freedom of information legislation in India. In 1997, a conference of chief ministers resolved that the central and state governments would work together on transparency and the right to information. Following this, the Centre agreed to take immediate steps, in consultation with the states, to introduce freedom of information legislation, along with amendments to the Official Secrets Act and the Indian Evidence Act, before the end of 1997. The central and state governments also agreed to a number of other measures to promote openness. These included establishing accessible computerised information centres to provide information to the public on essential services, and speeding up on-going efforts to computerise government operations. In this process, particular attention would be placed on computerisation of records of particular importance to the people, such as land records, passports, investigation of offences, administration of justice, tax collection, and the issue of permits and licences.

For the first time in 2000, the Freedom of Information Act was passed by the parliament of India. This enactment never came into force as the appointment the officers to execute the act and the modalities to enforce the act were never notified. This act was a weak legislation and was not at all operational. This enactment was replaced by Right to Information Act, 2005 which came into force from 12th October 2005. Prior to this date modalities like appointment of Public Information Officers (PIOs) and other modalities were completed. Now this act is in force and can be used in every state of India.

Now Right to Information Act is completing a decade next year. In last ten years, various people have achieved a lot by using Right to Information Act and in future also, it will be helping many in getting desired information from government functionaries and in making them transparent.

The author is a Supreme Court Advocate and has also authored a book on Right to Information titled Leading Cases on Right to Information.