It was a blip on the political radar in the ‘Bofors’ election of 1989. The Janata Dal led by V.P. Singh was the first party to promise to enact a right to information law. But Singh’s government fell before it could draft a Bill. The issue resurfaced in 1996 when a group of activists, journalists, lawyers and retired civil servants formed the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). It drafted the first Bill.
The United Front government set up a committee headed by activist H.D. Shourie, but the UF government too was short-lived. However, the NDA government took cognisance of the Shourie committee’s recommendations and set up a Cabinet Committee to take follow-up action. The Freedom of Information Bill was passed by Parliament in December 2002.
But, the notification didn’t bring the law into force. It was kept in abeyance, ostensibly to put in place the necessary rules and hierarchy. But the real cause was resistance from the bureacracy to the very idea of greater transparency. And the Vajpayee government buckled under their pressure.
The Manmohan Singh government, instead of enforcing the 2002 Act, introduced a new piece of legislation called the Right to Information Act 2005, repealing the 2002 Act. The new law created an independent body, the Information Commission. In the 2002 Act, the decision on whether a certain piece of information could be disclosed was left to the head of the department. But now an applicant can appeal to the Commission, which is insulated from all the three organs of State.
If such a radical law could be passed in the face of major bureaucratic reservations, it was thanks largely to two formidable women: UPA chairman Sonia Gandhi and National Advisory Committee member Aruna Roy. The very first Bill submitted by the NAC in August 2004 was the RTI. But the babus in the Department of Personnel and Training issued draft rules under the 2002 Act; clearly they regarded it as the lesser of the two evils.
But Roy protested and Sonia Gandhi exerted her authority in favour of the NAC’s draft. All the same, the Bill introduced in Parliament in December 2004 deviated from the NAC’s draft in one significant respect: its purview was limited to the Centre. Roy and others lobbied hard with Gandhi to bring the states too within the purview of the Bill. Gandhi intervened again. The formal route, though, was to get a Parliamentary Standing Committee to recommend the changes. The Committee displayed extraordinary speed and submitted its report in two months. The Group of Ministers headed by Pranab Mukherjee did the rest with matching speed. And the UPA government could flaunt the RTI Act as its biggest achievement at the end of its first year in office. Information had been freed.