Fifteen years after it came into effect, promising a new era in transparency in government functioning, India’s Right to Information, or RTI, Act is dying a slow but certain death, with the executive letting go of no chance to hasten the process.
According to an estimate, between 40 and 60 lakh RTI applications are filed every year, but less than 3 per cent Indian citizens have ever filed an RTI plea.
Of the applications filed, less than 45 per cent received the information they had sought, according to the ‘Report Card of Information Commissions in India, 2018-19’ released by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SSN) and the Centre for Equity Studies (CES). But of the 55 per cent who didn’t receive the information, less than 10 per cent filed appeals.
It doesn’t help that the Chief Information Commission (CIC) and the State Information Commissions (SICs) have an unwritten rule about not penalising erring public information officers for their failure to respond to RTI applications properly and in time. And then there is the matter of huge backlog.
The ‘Report Card’ revealed that as of 31 March 2019, there were 2.18 lakh appeals and complaints pending before the SICs. The study added that it took an average of more than a year for most SICs to dispose of complaints/appeals. While the SIC of Andhra Pradesh would take 18 years to dispose of a complaint, West Bengal SIC would take seven years and five months.
When demonetisation happened, RTI applications were routinely rejected by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on the specious ground that disclosing the information would “prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relation with foreign state or lead to incitement of an offence” – all mentioned in Section 8 of the RTI Act, which deals with exemptions.
When the CIC directed the RBI to provide the list of wilful loan defaulters, the RBI went to court and got a stay. Finally, on the directions of the Supreme Court, the RBI issued the list.
More recently, the Narendra Modi government has resolutely rejected applications seeking information about the controversial PM CARES Fund, set up to collect financial aid from citizens to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
Helping the government in its endeavour to make the RTI movement ineffective is the higher judiciary, which has been resisting bringing in any kind of transparency in its own functioning.
After all, the Supreme Court’s own record in dealing with cases pertaining to the applicability of the RTI Act on matters of judicial appointment isn’t something to write about.
Lack of adequate infrastructure and shortage of staff in government offices to deal with RTI applications is another cause for worry.
Then there is the issue of threats and acts of violence against RTI activists. In the last 15 years, at least 86 people who had filed RTI applications have been killed while 175 others have been attacked. At least seven applicants committed suicide while 184 applicants reported being harassed.
What the numbers say
Publicly available data, including in the annual reports of the CIC, shows that while there has been a steady increase in the number of RTI applications filed every year, the backlog, too, has been increasing.
As per a study by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, between 2012-13 and 2018-19, the total number of RTI pleas with various central government offices rose by 83 per cent — from 8.86 lakh to 16.30 lakh. But the number of CPIOs mandated to handle them increased by only about 13 per cent — from 21,204 to 24,048. More importantly, there was a a sharp fall in the mandatory reporting of data by ministries and departments to the CIC.
Another successful method to prevent outflow of information under the RTI Act is to appoint former government servants as information commissioners. After all, who better than a retired bureaucrat to prevent from getting public an information that could embarrass the government.
The 2018-19 SSN-CES ‘Report Card’ found that of the 374 information commissioners appointed in the 29 SICs since the inception of the RTI Act, over 58 per cent were former government officials. Of the 115 chief information commissioners appointed during this period, over 83 per cent were retired government servants, with 64 per cent from the elite IAS.
Government keeping IC posts vacant
The central and state governments have devised an effective way to thwart activists’ attempt to seek information by keeping the posts of information commissioners vacant.
In fact, on 16 December 2019, the Supreme Court directed the central and state governments to appoint information commissioners in CIC and SICs “within three months”. The court had said in its order that operational information commissions were “vital for the smooth working of the RTI Act”.
But, the governments can’t be bothered, because several posts continue to remain vacant. When the term of the information commissioners of the common SIC for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana ended in May 2017, it took an order of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to push the two states to constitute SICs.
Andhra Pradesh took over a year to finally appoint three ICs, that too after the intervention of the Supreme Court, choosing not to appoint a CIC for almost two years. BJP-ruled Tripura remained without a functional SIC for over six months.
Taking cue from 2011 SC order
In its judgment in the Central Board of Secondary Education versus Aditya Bandopadhyay on 9 August 2011, the Supreme Court observed that the RTI Act should not be “allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquillity and harmony among its citizens”.
“Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty. The nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties. The threat of penalties under the RTI Act and the pressure of the authorities under the RTI Act should not lead to employees of a public authorities prioritising `information furnishing’, at the cost of their normal and regular duties,” the bench further said.
Many public information officers often cite these words to discourage RTI applicants.
But, like several other spheres, in these times, the courts have often been siding with the government and failing to uphold the letter and spirit of the RTI Act. They have ensured that people seeking to use the RTI Act to expose the wrongdoings of the government are fearful of adverse observations. What hopes then do the common citizens have to hold their governments accountable? Perhaps, the judiciary can ask this question on behalf of Indian citizens.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.