Lovania Pertab
Barrister

Most of us have had, often in the course of our quest for services from public and parastatal bodies, the ugly feeling that we are being victimised or that our request whether for a licence, permit or authorisation has been dealt with unfairly. Most of us feel that there is nothing we can do in such situations but that ugly feeling of opacity and secrecy keeps nagging us….

Many of us are under the wrong impression that the right to information is a right to be exercised essentially by journalists in the course of their profession.

We could not be more wrong. In fact, the right to information has become a pillar in the exercise of democracy. It is the embodiment of transparency and good governance. It can be explained as the right of the general public to data and information held by public bodies. When any citizen has access to data and information, he has control on decisions of the government.

The emergence of the right to information has arisen with time as a result of the opacity in the decision-making process of public bodies. Some countries like India are very “avant-gardiste”. With time, the Right to Information has gained momentum and in 2015, the Unesco General Conference voted to designate 28 September as “International Day for the Universal Access to Information”.

Many international bodies have encapsulated the concept of transparency and have now, like the World Bank, given access to the public about information as to projects under consideration or under implementation and even minutes of Board meetings.

In Mauritius, there has been a pledge by several governments to enact a Right to Information Act but up to now, there is no indication that there will be any positive action on the subject…

India is a country which has had the courage to enact on the right to information. The Right to Information Act of India has for objective to empower the citizen, to promote transparency and accountability in public bodies and fight corruption and to promote democracy for people.

Manmohan Singh at the National Convention on Right to Information in 2006 stated: “We live in an age of information, in which the free flow of information and ideas determines the pace of development and well-being of the people. The implementation of Right to Information Act is therefore, an important milestone in our quest for building an enlightened and at the same time, a prosperous society. Therefore, the exercise of the Right to Information cannot be the privilege of only a few.”

In India, Information means any material in any form including records, documents, memos, emails, press releases, circulars, contracts, samples, models, data held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law.

Under the Right to Information Act of India, any citizen may request information from a public body. To be able to meet this exigency, public bodies must now compute all their data so that they are able to answer citizens promptly.

In practice, any citizen may file a RTI (right to information) request to any public body or its affiliates. Information has to be provided by any department and organisation that is established, constituted, owned, controlled or substantially financed, directly or indirectly by the State. The applicant has just to mention his name and contact details and does not have to give any reason for making the request for information. To facilitate this process, the Act has created an obligation on all bodies to appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO). The request made by any applicant is submitted to the PIO for information. If the information pertains to another body, the PIO has a duty to transfer the file to the other body within 5 days.
A CIC has been set up in India and it considers complaints from citizens whose requests have not been not received or in cases where a PIO has not been appointed.

The Act specifies time limits for replying to the request of a citizen. If the request has been made to the PIO, the reply is to be given within 30 days of receipt. However, if life or liberty of any person is involved, the PIO is expected to reply within 48 hours.

Each application costs Rs 10 and may entail additional fees for the documents which have to be furnished.

When the PIO does not furnish information sought or he acts mala fide or knowingly gives the applicant false information, the applicant can file a complaint with the Central Information Commission. If found to have acted contrary to law, the PIO is fined.

If a citizen has access to data and information from public bodies, it means that he can check in any situation whether the relevant body has acted bona fide and has not committed any act of corruption. All decisions become transparent and obey integrity and fairness.

Vivement a Right to Information Act to fight corruption in Mauritius!