Information Our Right

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Right to Information supporters are celebrating a decade of the act which revolutionized transparency in government. But problems remain. RTI applicants complain of delays with cases piling up; officials tend to fob off RTI requests or deliberately mislead those seeking information. BY PANKAJ PRASUN

A potent weapon in the hands of the ordinary citizen, the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, is 10 years old. It’s cause for celebration as RTI is recognized as “the best legislation in the world”. Millions of have used it effectively and in socially relevant ways.

Even as we in India celebrate, this is also time for introspection. Has the Act has lived up to its potential? Possibly not as there is growing tendency on the part of government at the Central and state levels to negate its benefits. This trend started in the later years of the UPA Government and seems to have accentuated under the current NDA.

There are delays, seen as deliberate, in filling up vacant positions of Information Commissioners in the states and Centre. The inexplicable delay in the appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission has led to accumulation of RTI requests. Without anybody at the top, the edifice loses credibility and could collapse.

The Act has changed the thinking and style of functioning of government in the last decade, but the same are also responsible for putting roadblocks. Officials are known to confuse and mislead applicants or claim that the required information is exempt from RTI

The situation in some states is no better and RTI activists say this is a countrywide phenomenon. Maharashtra is notorious with over 24,000 second appeals pending. In Pune alone, 6,500 appeals have been pending before the single-judge SIC bench.

Raviraj Phalle, Deputy Secretary at the SIC bench, says that “the SIC bench in Pune is doing its best to dispose of the cases as quickly as possible. In a day, at least 30 cases are disposed of.” But he added something more interesting: “Delay in information is not a major problem as the officials fearing penalty provide information within the stipulated time. But we have noticed that applicants do not get the kind of information they are looking for. Incomplete or improper information is provided, which results in appeals.”

Closely linked to this is the inability of many official agencies to give information suo moto which could have avoided current delays and reduced the number of RTI requests. Bringing political parties under RTI law has been pending for a long time. It should be settled quickly so political parties function in a more transparent manner. It could help curb unhealthy practices including the widespread use of black money for political purposes.

Avenues should also be explored to bring private sector organizations within the scope of RTI given its expansion in the economy. Reforms relating to transparency and fighting corruption should be strengthened in the form of suitable legislation to redress citizens’ grievances and a Lokpal. Proper protection for whistle-blowers and RTI activists should be ensured.

The Act has changed the thinking and style of functioning of government in the last decade, but the same are also responsible for putting roadblocks. Officials are known to confuse and mislead applicants or claim that the required information is exempt from RTI. Officials also complain that many RTI requests are frivolous, often malicious and sometimes used by people within the system to settle scores with colleagues or superiors.

The Act has changed the thinking and style of functioning of government in the last decade, but the same are also responsible for putting roadblocks. Officials are known to confuse and mislead applicants or claim

Several directives have been issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) — the nodal department for RTI which works under the prime minister — since June last year which indicate the government is as committed to the RTI Act as the UPA. These include the format for giving information to applicants, harmonizing RTI (Fee and Cost) Rules and Appeal Procedure, implementation of suo motu disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act and uploading of RTI replies on the respective websites of the ministry/department. But the problem remains.

Narendra Modi underscored these issues when he stressed the need for transparent, timely and trouble-free information access. Activists say that despite the apathy of the Central and state governments, RTI remains a “potent tool” to get information and secure justice.

Summary

  • The Right to Information (RTI) Act is 10 years old and there is reason to celebrate the transparency it has brought to government
  • But RTI activists say that there is a tendency within government to fob off RTI enquiries and mislead applicants
  • Hundreds of RTI cases are pending in the Centre and states as there are insufficient people appointed to information commissions
  • RTI In The States

    Maharashtra is acknowledged among those states with high pendency of RTI appeals. The most worrying fact is that almost 300 cases of murder, assault and harassment relating to information activism have been recorded in the 10 years of the law and Maharashtra has emerged the most dangerous state for RTI activists.

    While there is no official data on RTI-related crime, figures compiled by the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) documented 230 cases of assault and harassment, 49 murders and four suicides, in 10 years.

    CHRI data found that Maharashtra has double the number of cases (murders, attacks, harassment) than Gujarat, which comes second followed by Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Maharashtra also has the highest number of murders followed by Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

    The murders resulted from the exposure of illegal mining in forested areas and illegal sand mining by an entrenched mafia working in collusion with the construction industry. Investigations of encroachment of property by the rich and the powerful have also resulted in murder; private companies illegally tapping electricity connections have also responded with violence when their conduct came to public notice.

    Till December 2013, the National Human Rights Commission had taken note of only six RTI-related criminal cases in the past ten years, according to CHRI data.

    Interesting here to note that such harassments and murders took place mostly in developed states. Clearly, the financial and other stakes are high compelling vested interests to kill the whistleblower to avoid getting caught.

    Kerala is another case in point. The rules specify one chief information commissioner and 10 information commissioners. Actually there are only six as three have retired and one is under suspension for grave misconduct (oddly no legal action has been taken against him since the suspension). This is clear violation of the RTI Act and underscores the political hand behind such appointments. Today, there are 10,000 RTI requests pending in Kerala.

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