Sid from Patang was down in Mumbai on Saturday. And SK and I met up with him for a few drinks at Maharaja.
One of the very interesting conversations that we had (and we had many) was on the Right to Information Act and how it impacts our lives. In my neighbourhood – Charat Singh Colony – is a park that is paid for and maintained by the BMC. But for years residents in the colony had claimed that it was a private park build and maintained by them. With the Freedom of Information act in place an enterprising neighbour demanded to see details about the park. And, today many local residents can use the park.
So at a very fundamental level – the Freedom of Information Act empowers the citizen. And this is simply an example that I know of in my own locality. And, i don’t for a moment deny the impact of the Act on citizens. My problem is that it does not extend to the private sector.
Today, my life is impacted more by Companies than by the Government. My Bank, my Credit Card, Insurance compnay, phone company, electricity board – you name it – are run by private companies. Yes, I know that if I was a shareholder – under the Companies Act – i can, technically, ask and receive all information that I want. But, what if i am not a share holder. What if I am merely a consumer? Whom is my bank sharing my credit rating with? whom is my phone company giving out my number to? If you were a person applying for a home loan – you would be told with pride how many loans bank x gave out. Would you be told how many it foreclosed on? You know than n zillion people use Visa, do you know how many people have had recovery agents sent to their homes. As a consumer, this sort of information definitely would help make a better decision.
Now, for each of the companies that impact my life – i would probably need a piece of information that I really can’t access. And given that my life is impacted more and more by Companies and less and less by the Government, what are my rights vis-a-vis information that impacts me directly?
I think that we need to look at the right to information as applied to Civil Life and not just life that is impacted by Government. Let’s take something as simple as education. A new institute or school comes up – what are the bonafides of the people who run it? How competent are they? How will they impact the learner’s life? Who are the people who back it? Where does their money come from?
Look at something that occoured in the Indian blogosphere last month – the fracas over IIPM – don’t you reckon that the Right to Information also applies to a private institue that charges a bomb for a degree that may or may not exist. It has taken a whole bunch of bloggers – three of whom faced slurs, insults and were threatened with court cases to ensure that questions were asked. I am not commenting on the nature of the course. The IIPM programme maybe, for all practical purposes, more job oriented than a MBA offered by a the University of Patna (and pigs may fly) – but spculation on absurdities is not the purpose of ths post. The point is when it is a government i have the right to ask – But, god forbid I ask the same questions of a Firm that supplies me with services. When that happens all hell breaks lose.
Yes, it makes me feel good to see that the EGS scam is exposed in rural Maharashtra? But I am equally concrened in knowing what did Jog construction spend money on, when it was supposed to build rugged roads and flyovers. When that happens we can say with pride that we truly have the Right to Information in our country.