As RTI turns 12, systematic work at play to stifle it
Popularity of the act can be gauged from the fact that over 6 million applications are filed annually at the centre, state and district level.
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To the poor, it is a way to ensure the government delivers what they are entitled to. To the activist, it is a tool to unearth what is wrong. To the politician, it offers a chance to play the victim and strengthen his defence. To a cheat, it grants an opportunity for blackmail. To a journalist, it remains the easiest access to a scoop without putting one’s source in danger or causing discomfort.
How popular the Act is can be gauged from the fact that over six million (and counting) applications seeking information are filed annually with authorities at the centre, state and district level. As activist and former information commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, told me, "At least on three occasions, the government tried changing the Act and failed. It speaks of how strongly the citizenry and civil society upholds it.” Few are aware that the RTI rating which analyses the “quality of world’s access to information laws” ranks our legislation as the fifth best in the world. Mexico tops the chart and our neighbour Sri Lanka is a close third.
Let me stop you right now if your chest is swelling with pride.
The RTI Act is choking. Or as Nikhil Dey, a senior activist from the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, said, "The Act has been able to withstand a lot but will it not be injured?"
At play is a devious scheme, a quiet and cunning stifling of the Act’s implementation. The players remain faceless, beneficiaries too obvious to the state.
The ailment can be identified by reading the superbly documented report, Tilting the Balance of Power: Adjudicating the RTI Act by RaaG and Satark Nagrik Sangathan. Some of the things highlighted in the report are:
- Of the over six million applications filed every year only about five per cent reach the Information Commissions on appeal. Citizens either lack awareness or resources.
- Not more than 45 per cent of the applications seeking information are successful. Less than 10 per cent of the unsuccessful 55 per cent end up filing an appeal.
- The collective backlog of unresolved applications (where data was available) as of December 31, 2015, was 187,974 cases.
Pendency is rising implying the time taken in attending to your appeal is growing longer. In Assam, where no state information commissioner was appointed from January 1, 2012, to December 2014, and not a single information commissioner from March 2014 to December 2014, the waiting period for an appeal is 30 years. Not too long ago, even Madhya Pradesh had a waiting time of 60 years. It didn't really reform — it stopped sharing data on its site.
How has it come to this?
"Unfortunately, the Act gives the govt of the day a big say in who it wants to appoint as information commissioners," stated Dey.
That is when the government wants to.
In the national capital, in 2015, the Centre was shamed into appointing a chief information commissioner and information commissioners after activists knocked at the doors of the Delhi High Court. By then, the Central Information Commission had remained headless for over 10 months.
And what happens when the government, whether at the Centre or in the states want to make appointments?
Section 12(5) of the Act says “persons of eminence in public life” and belonging to a wide variety of fields can be appointed as information commissioners.
Here is what really happens.
The report cited earlier says, "A 2014 survey says 60 per cent of the information commissioners (ICs) across the country and 87 per cent of the CICs were former civil servants. Seventy-seven per cent of the CICs were from IAS cadre.”
The commissions have power to punish by penalising erring government servants and ordering the release of information. But, "Only in 1.3 per cent of the cases where penalty on erring civil servant was imposable did the information commissioners impose the same,” says the report.
Gandhi's experience from the time he was a commissioner made him state, "Commissions use penalty very rarely as if it was death penalty. The total number of penalties levied by all the commissioners since beginning in 12 years is 1,211. Out of these, I alone had levied 520 penalties.”
Dey said, "This govt at the Centre came in reaping the benefits of RTI Act yet a pro-disclosure approach is hardly seen.”
I'd like to end on a positive note but the story shared by the tireless retired naval officer, Commodore Lokesh Batra, who also is an RTI activist, is difficult to overlook. Worried over growing vacancies in the Central Information Commission, Batra wanted to examine how the issue was being dealt with. In a reply dated September 29, 2017, the CIC told him, "The said subject has not been dealt with in any file.”
Since President John F Kennedy told us “sincerity is always subject to proof”, I ask - what do you see?