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The Right to Information: India

India’s Right to Information Act guarantees citizens’ right to access information from government bodies (2005-Ongoing)

June 6, 2023
Author: Roshni Menon

Hum Janenge, Human Jiyenge” (the right to know, the right to live–a slogan of the RTI movement)

India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, 20051 sets out the rules and procedures regarding citizens’ right to information. Under the provisions of RTI Act, any citizen of India may request information from a “public authority” (any body of government established or constituted under the Constitution or any law made by the Parliament or State legislature), which is required to reply within thirty days. The RTI Act has expanded democratic space and empowered ordinary citizens to limit corruption within the state.

According to the RTI Act, any citizen of India may request information from a public authority—defined as any government body, as well as a non-government organization funded by the government. Citizens can file requests via a web portal2 or alternatively can appeal to the corresponding Public Information Officer (PIO). Members of the public can write to request the PIO in English, Hindi, or the official language of the state in which the application is being made.

The Act also requires every public authority to digitize their records for wide dissemination and to proactively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally.3

While the Indian Supreme Court ruled as early as 1982 (in S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 149) that a positive right to information was implicit in the right to free speech, a strong movement for the right of information was spearheaded by a powerful grassroots struggle of the rural poor to combat corruption in famine relief works. This struggle was led by a people’s organization, the Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)—or literally, “organization for the empowerment of workers and peasants”—in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district. The movement’s activities were based on the interpretation that citizens have a right both to know how they are governed and to participate actively in the process of auditing their representatives.4

MKSS’ work around wages and prices underlined how essential it was for ordinary people to access official documents—ranging from employment registers and bills submitted for the purchase of materials, to how much subsidized commodities were meant to be delivered to government ration shops.5 Access to such information allows the public to trace malfeasance and demand accountability from local authorities. This growing awareness and public concern about corruption in government ultimately led to the formulation of the (RTI) Act.


Most states have no prescribed forms for seeking information (though some do); an applicant can request information on a plain sheet of paper and provide a return address at which the information can be sent. There is an application fee of Rs. 10 (approximately USD 0.12)—though no fee is necessary by those living below the poverty line.6 The government body is then obliged to reply within thirty days. In case of matters involving a petitioner’s life and liberty, the information has to be provided within 48 hours.7


No readily-available information at the time of writing on the cost of implementing the RTI Act across government levels and bodies.


RTI has been a popular, citizen-centric law. It is estimated that every day on average, over 4800 RTI applications are filed. In the first ten years of the commencement of the Act, over 17,500,000 applications were filed.8 However, the system has also been marked by excessive delays in accessing the information.

Yet, the RTI Act arguably remains the most important reform in Indian administration in the last 50 years. Key activists have called it “more than a ‘tool” and much deeper than a policy or law.9 On the surface, the Act mandates a timely response to citizen requests for government information, but more importantly, it unlocks how poor and marginalized people are able to access government resources, fight corruption, and demand for democratic reforms within the state apparatus. In other words, “in villages and small towns across the country, the law has sparked a million tiny non-violent mutinies.”10

With its passing, every citizen cemented their right to question, examine, and assess governments. In the space of less than a decade, the movement for the right to information in India has expanded democratic space, and empowered ordinary citizens to exercise far greater control over the corrupt and arbitrary exercise of state power. However, some commentators, including Nikhil Dey, an early campaigner within the movement, have stated that governments still have a long way to go to fully implement the act.11 Moreover, the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government, led by the BJP, has sought to dilute some of the provisions of the RTI Act, through amendments made in 2019.12