“Private universities and institutions are not covered under 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 quality deterioration in education. The Right to Information Act (RTI) and Right to Education Act (RTE) could greatly strengthen the roots of democracy and bring about tangible reforms in the process of governance. The RTE, if implemented sincerely and supplemented by good quality higher education, could prepare the people to avail of the RTI and, thus, ensure transparency in public concerns and make them effective contributors to the 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 weary of the RTI and its potential to unearth all that is black in colour and action is by now known and well established. Even those who claim the 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 could claim the credit for enacting RTI Act. They had not done it of their own accord, but were made to yield to public pressure created and maintained by an alert group of public-spirited activists. Eventually, it all depends on the implementers how far they internalise the spirit of a particular legislation and how sincerely they strive to ensure that the expected outcomes are achieved. Right from day one, the systems of governance has just considered the RTI as an unnecessary burden. The activists in the area have faced tremendous hardships and hindrances from most quarters. Most of them had to pay a heavy price; several of them were ruthlessly eliminated.
The RTI queries have helped citizens unearth numerous scandals and scams. People now realise how equipped they are 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 up a new chapter in the participatory functioning of the Indian democracy. That potential rests with RTE.
Certain elements have persistently pressured the government to dilute some of the provisions of the RTI Act. Under 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, but politicians and political parties, with an exception or two, are unhappy and angry. It was on 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 most defects that have crept in the process of elections trace their origin to the lack of transparency and public accountability of the parties. It is equally well known how private universities are minting money at the cost of quality, leaving most of their graduates in lurch—without any readiness 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 RTE achieves its objectives, universities perform their role honestly, a strengthened RTI shall empower citizens to get their rights and perform their duties.