Union Home Minister and BJP president Amit Shah asserted last week that Indian citizens do not feel the need to file applications under the Right to Information Act because the Narendra Modi government has set high standards in transparency in governance.
While Amit Shah is certainly correct in saying that Indians no longer seem keen enough to file RTI applications, the reason isn’t what he wants us to believe. Fourteen years after it became a tool in the hands of citizens to get information from their government, the RTI is dying a slow but certain death in India.
Who’s to blame?
Apart from the usual suspect — the Narendra Modi government, which should be blamed for the possible failure — the transparency movement propelled by the RTI Act is headed towards a gradual halt. While the Modi government has done everything in its power to cut to size the bureaucracy manning the RTI Act as well as the activists and common citizens using it, the blame for stifling the law also lies with spineless information commissioners and the constitutional courts, particularly the Supreme Court.
Here’s a simple question for those who file RTI applications and follow the implementation of the RTI Act: Who is the current Chief Information Commissioner? If you don’t know, don’t feel embarrassed; even I had to Google his name. Sudhir Bhargava, as the Chief Information Commissioner, is expected to push and prod, and, if required, through his words ensure that the government departments take the RTI Act seriously. But he has done so little in this regard that few seem to realise the CIC is still a functioning body.
No government wants something as “silly” as transparency to come in the way of making it more accountable. But the CIC’s actions, or the lack of them, clearly show that the transparency watchdog also seems to agree with the government. When was the last time that the CIC showed a sense of urgency over an appeal of great public importance or passed a strongly worded order if the information was denied on specious grounds by a government department?
This rot is not new
Since 12 October 2005, when the RTI Act began to be implemented, successive governments have used every trick in the book to make it toothless and weaken its provisions.
From turning the CIC and the state information commissions into parking grounds for retired bureaucrats, particularly those who had turned denying information into a fine art during their tenure with the government, to keeping posts vacant, the Central and state governments did everything to keep information out of the public domain. They ensured that departments and officers manning them were never forthcoming while dealing with RTI requests.
The Manmohan Singh government had accepted the CBI’s demand that the investigative agency be taken out of the purview of the RTI Act, a strange demand considering that the CBI was already exempted from giving out any information related to ongoing probes and cases. But, notwithstanding the fact that the request was made at the time when the agency was probing the politically sensitive cases like the 2G scam and the Commonwealth Games scam, the Manmohan Singh government accepted the demand to keep the CBI out of the RTI Act.
Singh also said that the RTI law is being misused by “frivolous and vexatious” requests for information. Everyone knows that the adjective ‘frivolous’ is a popular byword for a political impulse to dilute one of the most potent transparency laws in modern Indian history.
A canard was also spread much before Modi came to power that RTI was being used to blackmail. And it is, of course, no coincidence that many corruption cases that were unearthed during Singh’s government began with a simple RTI request.
The NDA government headed by Narendra Modi also did its part. In July, the government got controversial amendments to the RTI Act passed in Parliament without prior public consultations. These amendments empowered the central government to make rules with regard to the tenure, salaries, allowances, etc, of the Central Information Commissioners and all state information commissions (SICs).
But, more worryingly, over two months after the amendments were passed and President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent, the Ministry of Personnel is yet to make the new rules governing the amended Act public.
Judiciary too played its part
The higher judiciary, which used to be at the forefront of transparency movement, is also maintaining a studied silence. This silence became more pronounced after the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, itself became the subject of a debate on lack of transparency in its functioning.
Important appeals against judgments of high courts with regard to bringing appointments through the collegium system under the RTI Act are languishing somewhere in the registry of the Supreme Court with no attempt whatsoever to speed up the hearings.
The CIC may not have made its annual report for 2018-19 public, a report card by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan and the Centre for Equity Studies lays bare all that is wrong with the implementation of the RTI Act in India.
The exhaustive report — the two organisations ironically used the RTI route by filing 129 applications across the country – points to the fact that several state information commissions are either non-functional or were functioning at reduced capacity because “posts of commissioners, including that of the chief information commissioner, were vacant”.
While Tripura has no information commission since May 2019, Andhra Pradesh State Information Commission remained non-functional for 17 months between May 2017 and October 2018.
Currently, there are four vacancies in the 11-member Central Information Commission, while pendency has been rising every month. There are more than 33,000 applications pending with the CIC.
Here’s another worrying factoid: If you filed an appeal in the Andhra Pradesh State Information Commission, it could take about 18 years before your appeal could be decided. The corresponding period for West Bengal is seven years and five months, and for Odisha it is four years and three months.
This is what is killing the RTI in the country — besides the RTI activists being routinely targeted, often fatally. According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, 84 RTI activists have been killed in India since October 2005.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.