Oct 252005

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.

  9 Responses to “Freedom of Information?”

  1. The point of the Right to Information Act is to bring the level of Accountability up to that which already exists for private companies. Besides, there is a simple to hold a private company responsible – stop buying from it. What do you do in the case of the government? Migrate? When a private institute behaves badly, people stop going there. It loses money, it goes out of business. What happens when the government behaves badly? You have to wait 4 years, and even then you may not be lucky. It is much easier to hold private companies accountable already. Adding a Right to Information act for private companies is simply increasing corruption, and increasing your costs, as the comapnies will simply pass on the extra costs of being exposed to some Information Act to the consumer.
    It is misguided attempts like these which have ruined our country. The problem with priavet comapnies is not there aren’t laws to tackle them, but that the laws that exist aren’t implemented. There is a Consumer Court, there is the regular court, and each industry has its own set of laws. This framework would be sufficent to prevent private companies from doing harm, if it were enforced. But in the case of the government, there were no laws to hold it accountable, just a public wish.

  2. i agree with what you are saying.
    i work with a MNC that is bound by its Brit owners on a certain level of corporate social responsibility. My earlier companywas much the same.
    However, with the company i worked for first was a rather laisse faire attitude on accountability. jab hoga dekha jayega.
    We are unfortunately following the american model where corporates run empires.

    your earlier commentator does not really know what he is talking about – do you know how long the consumer court takes. And a PIL or action in a consumer court is post mortem. It does not really arm the consumer with complete knowledge. After all, no free market can thrive without the consumer having perfect knowledge. I am very against a system where we want to empower oligopolies at the expense of consumers.

    In western europe – any banking institution (building society) that offers a house loan has to publish how many mortgages it foreclosed on. Credit card companies and store cards are under tremendous scrutiny for having overcharged their customers for decades.
    Neither you nor i nor TTG have the right and go and ask a manufacturer as to how they are disposing of their effluents. At best we can find the arrangements muncipality has made for this.

    we have the right to information on anything that impacts our lives. be it information on drugs, on pollution, on government corruption, on a neighbourhood company’s garbage disposal scheme.

    I do agree that there need to be fewer rules and those rules need to be better applied. But, to not have private sector accountable to the society that it is based in, is like a despotic politician who says no, you have no right to ask me what i did.

  3. Gargi, it’s actually the Right to Information Act. We used to have a Freedom of Information act which had few teeth because it basically said that people are free to try and get information from government agencies….

    Although I agree that the public should have the right to more information from companies, I don’t see how it is going to come about without a sustained campaign like the RTI activists undertook against the government. It seems a long way away right now.

  4. Revi I agree.
    TTG – i am not against companies. i own and run one. I am talking here about a slightly better assurance of CSR, on certain key parameters that impact my quality of life.

    for me the ultimate free market is where a consumer has complete information and complete power. I also believe that it is too damn dangerous to concentrate too much power – some is required, if they have to deliver – in the hands of either the government or corporates.
    I for one would like to know how much emmission of product x from compnay y – if necessary put up on their webiste. i would like to know how bank x has evaluated my or my company’s rating in a particular way.
    And this does’t necessarily come under the purview of the Right to Information Act. It can simply be an ammendment to the Companies Act that declares the nature of a companies statutory declration. And the parameters can change every few years = depending on what are the issues of concern at that point of time in society.

    Finally, I also believe that the Companies Act needs to be vastly simplified. There need to be a few rules, but rules that are enforced. The right to information – as it impacts a consumers direct well being – such as credit ratings or pollution levels or The trouble with the government’s legalise as far as industry is concerned, it tends to cover all bases. And when you try and cover all bases – you end up stifling the atmosphere. As someone who owns and runs a third of a business, i understand and apprecitate It irritates me to need out of me to see my life full of bureaucratic idiocy.Call me idealistic, but we need to have clarity as consumers, and simplicity as entreprenuers.

  5. and sid thanks for pointing that out πŸ™‚

  6. Sigh.
    Ravis, my point about the consumer court is just that – the laws for comapnies are sufficient, they are not enforced. The constitution talks about a litigant’s right to speedy justice. Not getting speedy justice means the law is not being enforced properly.

    As for oligopolies and monopolies, that is again already under the purview of a bunch of laws. If laws are not enforced, what good is another one demanding Right to Information? One more law not enforced.

  7. sorry to intrude on a pvt conversation πŸ™‚
    Monopolies and Restrictive practices deals well with monopolies, cartels and market fixing
    Consumer court deals with my individual grievance incase i choose to file.
    both of these i agree on.

    but what i am talking about is something called disclosure – from a consumer’s view point. . simple data TTG – how many loans given, how much foreclosed
    how much pollution put out, and what has been done to counter that
    “good” companies already do that .
    Things that are already par for the course in most developed economies. And if we are on the path to becoming ‘developed’ we need to put those safeguard mechanisms in place, from the point of view of the consumer.

    i agree with you that one more law to deal with this may not help. just simplify the Companies Act and simultaneoulsy look at increasing the purview.

    as far as government involvement in business is concerned grrr…… i have to deal with their idiocy on a daily basis. 3 types of taxation to start with. tons of paperwork for no rhyme or reason, ….. i have to hire people just to cope with government requirements. my own guess is that it is an underhand way of extending the EGS among the urban educated, and getting business to pay for it πŸ™‚

  8. TTG, I am not sure whether i want to spend the rest of my natural life in litigation.
    if my bank is giving out my credit rating (or yours) to another agency – doesn’t it make sense that you know about it? So, a simple fine print saying that they are sharing the info. with xyz. so that you as the consumer know

    if your mobile company is sharing your number with the whole world and his idiot cousin – then we need to know. a supreme court ruling is retrospective. but, what about my privacy, and that of a whole lot of consumers getting compromised.

    If a factory in your neighbourhood is dumpling effluents in the powai lake – hello – by the time someone files a PIL or the government gets aware – a whole bunch of people will be suffering.

    So more rights to the consumers. It is only where consumers have rights that industry per se also flourishes. we get rid of the chaff and are left with

    Having said that i buy harini’s point that having separate legislation may be stupid. something as simple as taxation – by the time we have filed sales tax, vat, service tax, company tax, tds, and complied with half a ziilion regulations that have no meaning anymore – we have generated paperwork that would probably destroyed half a rain forest:) I would love to see a system where we have a single tax window for the lot. I would love to see an unified regulatory environment for my area of business.

    Fewer rules, but rules that are sensible and enforced. Creating a climate that is easy to do business, at the same time where a consumer’s rights are protected.

    I would definitely agree more the Western Eurpoean model than the US model.

  9. Hi,

    I am a properietor and run my small business here…. there has been some one asking for my income tax returns from the deaprtment… they have asked me should they give or not….

    I am interested that if u could help me with a copy of the law where it states that the right of information law does not apply to private people ?

    Please direly in need.


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