Thirteen years ago, India adopted a progressive law empowering its citizens with the right to access information in the form of Right to Information (RTI) Act. Ever since its adoption in 2005, in more than a decade, it has had far-reaching consequences on the governance of the country. It played a very crucial role in highlighting several scams and has helped bring about accountability and transparency in the governance of the country.
However, 13 years later, all is not well with the RTI Act in India. India has slipped one spot in the recent rankings published by the Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy on the performance of countries with functional right to information laws. And while India presently stands at the 6th position out of the 123 countries in the list, last year it was on fifth position.
The ratings look at how RTI laws function across countries. The list uses a 150-point scale to indicate strengths and weaknesses of freedom of information laws around the world. The score is based on 61 indicators categorised under seven heads — right to access, scope, requesting procedure, exceptions and refusals, appeals, sanctions and protections, promotional measures.
India scored 128 points.
13 years later, all is not well with the RTI Act in India. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Kalyan Shah)
The global rankings, which started in 2011, have usually seen India giving a good show — the country held the number two rank in 2011, 2012 and 2013. After that, however, the rank has continued to slip down, and has now fallen to number six, behind Sri Lanka, Mexico and Afghanistan — which came first this year.
The slip in India’s ranking is more concerning in light of the list of countries which rank above it, who have adopted laws such as these much after India. Afghanistan, a much smaller country, is above India in the ranking. With a score of 139 points, Afghanistan leaves behind Mexico to gain the top position. It is to be noted that India had adopted RTI Act in 2005, while the same was implemented in Afghanistan after nine years in 2014. But, despite a head start, India lags behind smaller countries mostly because of the negligent and faulty implementation of the law.
What led to slip in India’s position?
According to a survey of information from the annual reports of the state information commissions (SICs) and the Central Information Commission (CIC), there are myriad reasons for this poor show. According to Transparency International India, which carried out the survey, the total number of RTI pleas received during 2005-16 were 2,43,94,951 and during the same period, the number of second appeals filed to the CIC were 18.5 lakh.
There is an increasing vacancy in multiple state information commissions including the CIC — over 30.8 per cent or 48 out of total 156 posts are vacant for information commissioners (including chief information commissioner) at the Union and state level. Only 12 states have filled all posts like state chief information commissioners and information commissioners in their commission, leading to no vacancy. No state chief information commissioners have been appointed for Andhra Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Nagaland.
Despite a push for digitisation by the government, most states are yet to make RTI accessible online. For instance, only 11 out of a total of 29 states have provisions for online appeals/complaints. Chhattisgarh is the only state that has updated annual reports online from 2005-2017. Also, only 10 (out of total 29) have updated their annual reports.
Clearly, in India there has been a tendency to decline giving information due to which, between 2005 and 2016, more than 18 lakh people had to knock on the door of the information commissions for the second appeal. Apart from this, many institutions including the CBI in India are still not within the purview of RTI Act. Information is withheld under the garb of confidentiality and privacy, even in those matters that in no way violates national security or an individual's privacy.
India’s slip in ranking becomes a political issue
Pointing out that lakhs of RTI queries that remain unanswered, Congress President Rahul Gandhi accused the Modi government of systematically derailing the RTI Act and asserted his party's commitment towards resisting government’s further attempts to dilute the law. He said, "Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking to dilute the RTI Act. The Congress party will resist any attempt to dilute the Act, and lends its support to all those organisations and individuals who are standing shoulder to shoulder in protest."
Recently, the Modi government proposed to amend the RTI Act and sought to remove statutory safeguards ensuring the independence of information commissioners at the Centre and in the states.
Rahul Gandhi accused the Modi government of systematically derailing the RTI Act. (Photo: Indiatoday.in)
Pending in Parliament, the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018 empowers the Central government to decide the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of information commissioners at the Centre and states.
Currently, their salaries and tenures are statutorily protected and are at par with those of the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners.
RTI activists and Opposition parties have been expressing their strong reservation against the proposed amendments.
The way forward
The decline in India’s ranking falls flat in our faces when we claim that we are a vibrant democracy. It portrays a negative image of India indicating that there is a systematic effort by higher officials to conceal the information from citizens.
While the technicalities and bottlenecks that stand in the way of flow of information can be taken care of, it is more important to change the mindset of the people sitting in powerful positions in the country, who have the tendency to withhold information.
Also, due to lack of political will, the RTI Act is not being implemented in letter and spirit. To empower the legislative framework is the foremost responsibility of the government, but this can only be ensured when political parties and citizens are guarded and are constantly pushing the government to not dilute such a citizen-empowering law.
While the government has maintained that “frivolous RTIs” add to the burden of the government employees, the fact is that most RTIs are not filed by activists but by common men to access basic information, who have been denied legitimate rights and entitlements. Hence, the RTI Act by and large serves as an alternate grievance redressal system.