There is a tendency to attribute the birth of the Right to Information (RTI) through enactment of a law in 2005 to social movement and policy making that is more contemporary in nature. However, a new book seeks to demystify the historical evolution of RTI, showing that it was dependent on ideas that emerged within the state since independence.
Based on historical evidence that has been overlooked in mainstream literature, the book Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act in India by Himanshu Jha, chronicles the evolution of RTI, seeking to move beyond the two prominent narratives that are normally cited to explain the enactment of the law – the social movement spearheaded by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan which later expanded as National Campaign of Peoples Right to Information, and the political claim-making that UPA I facilitated the birth of the RTI Act.
The book states that reports of various government committees constituted immediately after independence supported transparency. A similar movement towards transparency was evident in the 1965 ruling of the speaker of Lok Sabha which extended, in the public interest, to all MPs in the Lower House the privilege of quoting from confidential documents. This move was triggered by the demand from the opposition. A similar sentiment was evident when the opposition assumed power in 1977 with the Janata party coming to power and concrete policy steps were initiated to ensure freedom of information.
The book details how in 1977, home minister Charan Singh constituted a working committee to determine if the Official Secrets Act could be amended and official information made public. The trend continued well into the 1980s and the 1990s. For instance, G.C. Bhattacharya, an MP in the Upper House from the Lok Dal Party, part of the ruling Janata Party coalition in 1977, introduced the first Bill on the freedom of information in the parliament. Interestingly, this bill has an uncanny resemblance to the present RTI Act.
“Several such historical pieces of evidence are brought to the light in this book. These moves are completely missing in the mainstream narrative about the evolution of RTIA,” says Jha.
Building on this fresh empirical material, the book argues that an endogenous policy discourse on enacting legislation on access to information had begun early and it incrementally evolved, and after surviving many political challenges, reached a ‘tipping point’ in 2005. Initially, these ideas emerged gradually and incrementally as part of opposition politics but eventually became part of mainstream politics.
“It was surprising to find out that this ideational churning was driven primarily by the opposition, the government committees and the judiciary. The evidence shows that the Congress party resisted it throughout. Also by the time social movement around the issue emerged in the mid-’90s substantial policy movement had already occurred within the state. State thinking had moved positively towards possible legislation on access to information. Had the state thinking not moved in this favourable direction the state would have dealt with the same social movement very differently,” says Jha.