E-GOVERNANCE AND INFORMATIONAL RIGHTS
A note analysing the relationship of e-governance and informational rights.
Transparency, accountability and authenticity (TAA) are the pre-requisites for good governance. These are, generally, not found in a “traditional paper based” governmental functioning. That is why use of Information Technology (IT), in the form of e-governance, in governmental functioning assumes significance.
(1) ELECTRONIC GOVERNANCE: A BRIEF CONCEPT
The World Bank defines e-governance as the use of information and communication technologies by government agencies to transform relations with citizens, business world and other arms of the government. The term e-governance involves the computerisation and networking of all government departments and linking each district with the State headquarters. The objective of e-governance in India goes beyond mere computerisation of government offices. It fundamentally means changing the way the government operates and implies a new set of responsibilities for civil servants, business world and the public. Plans such as online services will give an average citizen access to Government services, with faster responses at more convenient hours. These services include providing information, collecting taxes, granting licenses, administering regulations and paying grants and benefits. The aim of e-governance is to eliminate middlemen and corruption. Once people know that information could not be monopolised, they would demand access to it1. Thus, e-governance can not only ensure “TAA” but equally makes Right to Information U/A 19(1)(a) and Right to Know U/A 21 of the Constitution of India a meaningful reality.
(2) AMALGAMATION OF E-GOVERNANCE AND RTI
The right to impart and receive information is a species of the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India. A citizen has a Fundamental Right to use the best means of imparting and receiving information. The State is not only under an obligation to respect the Fundamental Rights of the citizens, but also equally under an obligation to ensure conditions under which the Right can be meaningfully and effectively be enjoyed by one and all. Freedom of speech and expression is basic to and indivisible from a democratic polity. The right U/A 19(1) (a) is, however, available only to the citizens of India and non-citizens can claim only right to know U/A 21 of the Constitution of India. Recognising the right to information (RTI) of “citizens” of India, the IT Act, 2000 and RTI Act, 2005 (RTIA) have been enacted. The RTIA, if implemented properly, could prove a boon for the e-governance initiative because the required information can be asked for and provided by using the e-governance base. The following provisions of the IT Act, 2000 reflect India’s concern to bring transparency in the functioning of governmental affairs through e-governance: (a) Legal recognition of electronic records (section 4), (b) Legal recognition of digital signature (section 5), © Use of electronic records and digital signature in governmental dealings (section 6), (d) Retention of electronic record for certain period (section 7), (e) Establishment of electronic gazette (section 8), etc. However, these provisions provide only a non-absolute right to claim a sound e-governance base (section 9). The beneficial concept of e-governance can be utilised for the following purposes:
(1) To have access to public documents.
(2) For making online payments of various bills and dues.
(3) To file statutory documents online2.
(4) To file the complaints, grievances and suggestions of citizens online.
(5) The online facility can be used to enter into a partnership the appropriate government in cases of government contracts.
(6) The citizens can use the online facility to file their income tax returns3.
(7) The citizens will enjoy the facility of online services.
(8) The various departments of the government can be computerized and centralized and the responsibility for its proper maintenance can be fixed on an agency like National Informatics Centre.
This sort of arrangement will definitely help in establishing a better state-citizen relationship. It will further, result in bringing transparency in governmental functioning as the RTIA is providing right to citizens to ask for matters pertaining to governmental functioning. It is also recognising use of e-governance as a tool for efficient functioning of the Act and for giving strength to the benign drive of “whistleblowing”.
(3) E-GOVERNANCE: THE BEST WHISTLEBLOWER
The concept of electronic governance can do many wonders and one of them is to play the role of whistleblowing. The expression “whistleblowing” is very wide in scope and it refers to a situation where the factum of arbitrariness, illegality or a wrongful act by the “dominant personality” is brought to the notice of general public and courts. The dominant personality may be the all-powerful State, its instrumentalities or even the private employers, who by virtue of their position and resources are capable of suppressing the wrongful conduct.
The instrument of whistleblowing can be invoked most effectively by combining it with the information technology. This is because the medium of information technology is not only speedier and economical but equally the safest and strongest. It must be appreciated that the evils of corruption, delinquencies, scams, etc are intangible in nature and they breeds due to lack of transparency and accountability. The use of information technology in the form of e-governance will eliminate these evils by bringing transparency and accountability.
(4) THE REQUIRED JUDICIAL SUPPORT
The traditional methods of protection of these whistleblowers though are effective but are not free from risks and lacunas. The use of information technology, particularly a sound e-governance base, can safeguard the interest of justice in the most benign manner. The whistleblowers are protected, as they are not exposed to the retaliatory tactics of the persons exposed by them. At the same time valuable evidences are also made available to the courts to do complete justice. The use of video- conferencing and web-meetings can solve most of the problems associated with the evidence giving. The whistleblowers can be testified by using these technological devices that are readily available at the disposal of the courts. It is no bravery to expose the crucial witnesses and whistleblowers to the risks of retaliatory tactics adopted by hard-core criminals. The prudent judicial system should maintain a balance between the interest of justice on the one hand and the interest of the whistleblowers on the other. A crucial witness or a whistleblower need not to be taken to the court premises if a sound e-governance base are in vogue. The time, money, efforts and resources consumed in bringing the whistleblowers is on a much higher footing as compared to the use of e-governance for the same. The evidence of these whistleblowers can be recorded and its recorded version can be transmitted to the court along with a copy of the same. The evidence so recorded is of durable nature and can prevent the miscarriage of justice. A sound judicial system requires proper evidencing and the same is a risky affair on all counts. This is not a case of dissatisfaction with either the justice administration system or the law enforcement system but the natural and human tendency that must be recognised and accepted. The courts must stress on obtaining as much evidence as possible. The same can be done by primarily relying upon a sound e-governance base, though traditional methods of evidencing can be also be used to supplement it.
For a successful e-governance project technology plays only 15% role, while rest 85% role is being taken care of by project management. Human resource development of the existing workforce in order to inculcate appropriate skills and attitudes is a critical factor. Equally important is the establishment and set up of the basic infrastructure, which is conducive to the efficient functioning of the e-governance. A sound communication infrastructure is essential for easy access. It should be innovatively used to ensure that no section of society is deprived of the benefits arising therefrom. Governments have to learn to digitise documents quickly and effectively so that the e-governance revolution becomes a reality.
© Praveen Dalal. All rights reserved with the author.
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1 Anupama Katakam; ‘Information Technology: Towards E-Governance’, The Frontline 78, 10th December 1999.
2 Recently the SEBI has allowed filing of specified documents online by the listed companies vide, SMD/Policy/Cir-17/02 dated 3rd July 2002.
3 Assessment year 2002-03, the bulk filing of returns of the employees by the employer on computer readable medium has been recognised by Sec.139 (1A) of the Income Tax Act.1961.