In search of “Information” - Seven years of RTI
The RTI Act, 2005 has come a long way since 15th June of 2005 when the President Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam signed the bill which brought it into existence. The extent of attention the Act has received during the past seven years is unsurpassed for any legislation and it is beyond dispute that the Act has played a tremendous role in empowering the citizens of the country. RTI Act has acted as a bulwark against the deviations from the norms and has aided in fixing accountability. Simultaneously, the Act has received criticism for lowering the morale of the civil services leading to paralysis of decision making process. It has been censured for its impact on the economy leading to the ‘Anna rate’ of growth. Seven years is a reasonable time to sit back and evaluate the working of the Act.
The basic objective of bringing out the RTI Act as pointed out in the Preamble of the Act was “…setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities...” A need was felt to provide information to the citizens in a time bound and a cost effective manner. The Act provided for a 30 day time limit to a Public Information Officer (PIO) to provide information and another 30 days to the First Appellate Authority (FAA), after which the information seeker could approach the Information Commission. The working of the Central Information Commission (CIC) has shown that over the years, the pendency of appeals has risen exponentially. With an average monthly disposal of just over 2000 appeals, it would require nearly one year for the CIC to dispose an appeal which is filed today. Such long delays defeat the purpose of the RTI Act. The rising gap between the receipt and disposal of the appeals has resulted into the worsening of the pendency position of the CIC and presents a picture of an impending doom. The delay at the level of CIC is compounded by the stay granted by the higher judiciary to many of the progressive orders of the Information Commission. There is a need to find a way to get out of the logjam of delays.
One of the reasons of the rising pendency at the level of Information Commission is that even the issues which have been settled earlier, come to it again and again. In many cases, the information sought by the applicant ought to have been put proactively on the website by the public authority. This was a legal requirement to be fulfilled within 120 days as per the section 4 of the RTI Act which remains largely unfulfilled till day. Despite the order CIC/AT/D/10/000111 dated 15th November 2010 by the full bench of seven members of the CIC, the progress remains obscure. Neither the government nor the CIC have been able to get the pro-active disclosure clause implemented.
Conflicting decisions between the different Information Commissions or even between the different benches of the same the Information Commission have been a source of confusion for a citizen. Sometimes, the orders are not speaking orders, with no reasoning or justification. While views may differ individually, as an institution, the Information Commission should take a collective and consistent stand on a particular issue lest the Judiciary passes any strictures.
Very few Information Commissions are working to their full sanctioned capacity and persistence of vacancies has added to the pendency. The process of appointment of the Information Commissioners, or its absence, has received a lot of media coverage. Protest, submission of petitions and filing of the PIL has become regular feature all over the country. In an interview, Mr. Shailesh Gandhi, Information Commissioner at the CIC, has claimed that even his appointment was by a completely flawed method. The Central Government has now set a procedure for the appointment of Information Commissioner for which it needs to be applauded. Sadly, there is hardly any transparency in the appointment at the State Information Commission with allegations of favouritism repeatedly pouring in.
Orders by the CIC levying maximum penalty and initiating enquiry against its own officers leads a citizen to two possible conclusions. The first is that the CIC is independent and fair in decision making which does not take any cognisance as to who the person who has committed the mistake is. Another possible interpretation is that the officers of the CIC cannot keep their own house in order and are not aware of how to deal with RTI applications. This interpretation gains strength from the statement of the PIO of CIC that there are many similar cases of delay pending as appeals before CIC. One must, however, accept that despite the shortcomings, the CIC has done a good job and has tried to fulfill the role allotted to it.
The failure to adequately reply to a RTI application brings to light the fact that very few officers/ staff have received a formal training regarding the legal provisions of the RTI Act, 2005. The official machinery is not only woefully unaware of the provisions of the Act, but also suffers from attitudinal problems. The government staff is accustomed to working in a set pattern and need re-orientation to work and create a new open atmosphere. The reluctance to provide information is leading to their denial on flimsy ground ultimately adding to the long queue of appeals. A regular brushing of the knowledge is a feature of every good training programme. It helps in taking into account the new emerging realities and devising steps to deal with it. Sadly, there has been no clear system of continuous education in place to help a hapless PIO.
Apart from training, another step which can help in in the free flow of information is the adoption of “India One” fee rules. While the federal structure limits the powers of the Central government to define the fee rules for the state government, the Centre should try to use its goodwill to enforce a common fee rule for the whole of India. When India is one, the fee rules need to be on the lines of the “India One” plan of BSNL. This reduces the prevailing confusion about the fee rules between different public authorities.
The NGO or the civil society has played a very important role in the formation and evolution of the RTI Act. The Act has led to the arrival of a new class of activists on the national screen who have faced intimidation and physical assault. No democracy can permit any such assault on its citizens who are trying to unravel the truth. The CIC had passed a resolution that if there is a complaint that somebody is attacked or killed, the public authorities would be directed to suo-motu put the information sought by him through the RTI applications on the website of the public authority. The CIC also asks the police to take up the investigation. Unless the attackers have the fear that trying to harm a person may land them in a bigger mess, they are unlikely to stop. Though many RTI activists have done a great service to the nation, but the same cannot be said about all of them. There are a number of frivolous applications coming up from self-claimed RTI activists which tends to affect the morale of the officers and lowers their productivity. This may lead to negative sentiments against the RTI movement over a long run. agitated
The seven year nascent journey of RTI Act presents many possible roadmaps for the future. Would it be another progressive law going down the drain? Or, are the hiccups merely a passing phase in the growth of an Act which is going to bring major changes in the power structure of the society? Every sensible citizen should spare some time to deeply ponder over the issue.