Private universities and institutions are not covered under the RTI” is the response received from the PMO by the Vice-Chancellor of a State university. This exclusion is beyond the comprehension of all those who are concerned about the deterioration in quality of education. The Right to Information Act (RTI) and the Right to Education Act (RTE) could greatly strengthen the roots of democracy and bring about tangible reform in the process of governance. The RTE, if implemented sincerely and supplemented by good quality higher education, could prepare people to avail of the RTI and thus ensure transparency in public concerns and make them effective contributors to democracy. Unfortunately, the RTE has been reduced to just one of the numerous schemes that are launched and left to languish.
The way politicians and bureaucrats have become wary of the RTI and its potential to unearth all that is black in colour and action is by now known and established. Even those who claim credit for the passage of the RTI Act as a ‘game-changer’ and ‘pathbreaking’ legislation now squirm at several of its provisions. In fact, no political party can claim the credit for enacting the RTI. They did not do it of their own accord, but were forced to yield to public pressure created and maintained by an alert group of public-spirited activists.
Eventually, it all depends on how well the implementers internalise the spirit of a particular legislation and how sincerely they strive to ensure that expected outcomes are achieved.
Right from day one, the systems of governance have just considered the RTI as an unnecessary burden. Activists in the area have faced tremendous hardship and hindrances from most quarters. Most of them had to pay a heavy price; several of them were ruthlessly eliminated.
RTI queries have helped citizens unearth numerous scandals and scams. People now realise they are equipped to ask questions on issues that concern the community and country. Every citizen needs to be made aware of the possibility offered by the RTI to open a new chapter in the participatory functioning of the Indian democracy. Building that potential rests with the RTE.
Certain elements have persistently pressured the government to dilute some of the provisions of the RTI. Because of tremendous public resistance, these attempts have not succeeded so far. While the historic decision from the Chief Information Commissioner that all political parties shall be brought within the ambit of this Act was welcomed by people with great enthusiasm, politicians and political parties with an exception or two are unhappy and angry. It was on the cards that the UPA government, with support from most of its allies, was ready to reverse the decision. It, however, could not do so because of the ‘nonsense’ statement of Rahul Gandhi, which killed another bill and ordinance concerning disqualification of the convicted representatives of the people.
It is known that the origin of most defects that have crept into the process of elections can be traced to the lack of transparency and public accountability in political parties. It is equally well known that private universities are minting money at the cost of quality, leaving most of their graduates in the lurch without the preparedness in knowledge and skills to get a suitable place in the job market. If kept out of the purview of RTI, most of these would be further emboldened to play havoc with the quality of education. These, as also the political parties, must be reined in and people must be empowered to ensure their transparent functioning. The government must not ignore public opinion in both these cases as otherwise it could vitiate the academic and political fabric irreparably.
If the RTE achieves its objectives and universities perform their role honestly, a strengthened RTI shall empower citizens to get their rights and perform their duties.