Civil society and right to information: a perspective on India’s experience

Civil society and right to information: a perspective on India’s experience

How civil society spearheaded right to information movement in India

This paper provides an account of the right to information movement spearheaded by civil society in India. In particular, the paper examines how civil society has:

  • brought about a conceptual shift in the debate on right to information;
  • used public hearing as a mode of mobilizing people to demand transparency and accountability;
  • used several methods of social audit to promote transparency and accountability;
  • exerted pressure, through networking, on government for a legislation on right to information;
  • supplied drafts of possible legislation and flagged gaps in the legislation once it was passed;
  • used state-level legislation, created awareness about it, prepared people to use it and officials to implement it
The author notes that while mobilizing people for the right to information movement, civil society in India focused on four aspects that were very different from the debate elsewhere in the world:

  • it shifted the focus from media’s right to access information to people’s right to information.
  • it rooted the debate within the constitutionally guaranteed right to life and liberty which turned an abstract right into a practical tool in the hands of people
  • it looked upon information as a public good and made people realise that public money is their money and that they have a right to ask for an account of how this money is being spent, thus introducing the concept of ‘social audit’ and direct accountability.
  • civil society used the right to information platform to promote people’s participation in governance.
The civil society organisations also put pressure on government for a right to information legislation through networking and advocacy. They also provided several drafts of a possible legislation.

The Freedom of Information Act was finally approved by the Parliament in 2002. The Act came in for severe criticism from civil society on various grounds, most notably for the large number of exemptions, excluding private agencies, not providing for a penalty clause, lack of an independent appeals mechanism and absence of an oversight body. Yet it marks recognition of the need to move from a culture of secrecy to one of greater openness.

A key lesson learnt is that development outcomes are considerably higher when engagement with civil society is multilateral and long term, rather than project-based, involving all stakeholders including government and media.

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