ACCESS DENIED

A poor and illiterate woman in Delhi filed an FIR in the Nand Nagri police station. Initially the police refused to give her a copy of the FIR. The woman filed an application under the Delhi Right To Information (RTI) Act with the help of some volunteers. She asked for a copy of the FIR and actions taken on it. The application was in Hindi. The reply came within the stipulated 30 days time limit. But it was written in English. The illiterate lady could not find a person who could read and understand the letter and tell her what was written in it. Finally she knew what the reply was. She was unsatisfied with the response. She wanted to appeal to the higher authority. But by that time the last date for appeal had passed. In effect, the lady was denied her right to information. The language in which information is to be provided is important because to use the information one must understand it. But the RTI Act, 2005 passed by Parliament is vague about it. And it is this Act which is a model for all the State acts. Rather the Union Act contains a provision which helps public authorities to deny information in the form it is sought. Section 6 of the RTI Act, 2005 says that a person asking for some information can request in English or Hindi or the official language of the area. It goes beyond this to say that if a person does not know how to write then it is the responsibility of the Public Information Officer (PIO) to write down the application. Unfortunately, the Act is not so forthright regarding furnishing information in local language. It has no mandatory provisions to furnish information in Hindi or the official language of the area. In Section 19(8) (a) the Information Commission has the power to direct the public authority to provide access to information, if so requested, in a particular form. The benefit of the above section is nullified by Section 7(9) of the Act which declares that information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority. In practice public authorities take shelter under the provision to deny information in the form in which it was sought. The problem is if a person is provided information in a language in which she can not comprehend, it is nothing but violation of her right to information. It is also like forcing a person who knows only English, to read a Japanese text! The problem is acute in our country for two reasons. One, in India most of the business in Government is carried out in English. Secondly, in our country about 35 million people are illiterate. Even among the ‘literates’ there would be very few who would be able to read and understand English.

The problem requires immediate amendment of the RTI Acts of both the Union and State Governments. In the Union Act there should be express provision of providing information in at least Hindi, if so requested. Similarly State Acts should have provisions to provide information in at least the official language of the area. Implementing such provisions may require some effort and resources. But it will be hugely beneficial for the country in the long run. It will indigenize our administration and will bring it closer to the people. Secondly, it will bring down corruption particularly at the cutting edge level. Corruption is rampant at the lower level of administration mainly because the rules and regulations are in English and people are not able to understand it. The RTI Act wants to herald a revolution by giving ‘right’ to information to all Indian citizens. The ‘right’ also includes the right to receive the information in the local language. And the right has no meaning if the information is not provided in the language of the common man.