While the right to information (RTI) has helped large sections of society in overcoming grievances, scholar Kalpeshkumar L Gupta* insists on the need to bring about changes in the way it is being implemented in order to make RTI more people friendly. An analysis:
Right to Information (RTI) Act is landmark legislation which was enacted in India in the year 2005. It completed eight years recently. It has brought radical change in the country’s administration and society. With the help of RTI Act one can come to know about the working of the public authority. Earlier, citizens were not aware about the affairs of the public authority, which resulted in widespread corruption in the system. RTI has many success stories all over the country, along with some bad instances in the form of attacks on RTI activists and killing of them. It has helped many people, especially at the grass-root level, to gather information on their grievances against public distribution system, public works, and so on.
Under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act, public authorities are under obligation to publish suo-moto information on office board, information documents, websites etc. For getting information given in Section 4(1)(b), one need not make an RTI application. One can get information under suo-moto disclosure. As per Chief Information Commission (CIC) of Himachal Pradesh Bhim Sen, “The Act had been enforced for more than eight years and it was enough time for concerned officials to get familiarized with it. Apart from basic information, this section enabled commoners with right to seek information about functioning of the government departments”.
Attack on activists
There are many RTI activists in the country who are making efforts to improve governance system in India by way of exposing maladministration, mismanagement with the help of RTI. They are playing crucial role in exposing corruption in the country. There is also a darker side of this activism, i.e. attacks on RTI activists, sometimes leading to the killing of some of them. Data gleaned by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) shows Maharashtra saw 53 attacks on RTI activists, including nine cases of murder, over the last eight years. Gujarat comes next with 34 attacks, and three murders.
Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka follow with over 10 reported attacks on RTI activists during the last eight years. The data points to around 251 cases across India where people were either attacked, murdered, physically or mentally harassed or had their property damaged because of the information they sought under RTI. The Whistle Blowers’ Protection Bill is pending before the Rajya Sabha. It is meant to protect RTI activists from attacks.
The Supreme Court on November 19, 2012 had expressed concern over the murder of and attacks on RTI activists and whistle-blowers. It said the state governments were responsible for their security and safety. “Law and order is a state subject. It is for the state governments to take action. We cannot issue guidelines,” said the bench.
There should be enough number of benches of commission in the state for hassle-free hearing of appeals/complaints filed under RTI. Sometime it becomes very difficult for a person coming from one end of a state to attend hearing in another part of the state. I had a hearing few months back at the office of Gujarat State Information Commission, Gandhinagar. I went from Ahmedabad to the Gandhinagar office of the CIC for hearing. When I reached there, I saw a notice which said that the commissioner had fallen ill. That was a total waste of time and money. Suppose a person comes from South Gujarat or Kutch, and this type of situation arises, there is bould to be considerable distress.
Gujarat can follow the Maharashtra example to solve the problem. In Maharashtra, the main office of the commission is situated in Mumbai and there are regional offices at Nagpur, Aurangabad, Pune, Nashik, New Bombay and Amravati. Other states also follow this practice rather than establishing just one office at particular place. If the state is not able to open new benches, it can provide video conferencing facility in the office of the State Information Commission so that parties can be present for hearing at some place, e.g., at the National Informatics Centre (NIC) in the districts.
The Haryana Information Commission started hearing pleas of RTI applicants through video conferencing. According to its Information Commissioner Urvashi Gulati, “We are here to make the life of people convenient. For instance, if somebody is very old and cannot travel from far-flung areas of Haryana to Chandigarh, such a liberty is granted to applicants. Many people who come to us are generally very poor and cannot afford the travel expenses. Thus we have started allowing them to come through video conferencing or even phone”.
The Bihar government started the RTI Call Centre called Jaankari. Jaankari was set up in January 2007 and it was awarded as the best e-governance initiative by the Government of India. There are two numbers, one for RTI Application (155311) and the other one is RTI Helpline (155310). An RTI application and appeal fee of Rs 10 is included in telephone bill service provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). This is the most convenient method of RTI application so far.
Various options for fees payment should be given to RTI applicant. The Gujarat Right to Information Rules, 2010, says that one can make payment in cash, demand draft, Indian Postal Order, non-judicial stamp paper, stamping through franking, electronic franking, court fees stamp, revenue stamp, or challan credited in government treasury. Moreover, a person can apply through e-media also, but would have to pay the fees within seven days from the date of the application, failing which the application would be treated as withdrawn.
To ease RTI fees payment, the Central Information Commission has asked the department of post to issue RTI stamps of Rs 10 denomination and open separate counters for accepting the applications at its 1.5 lakh post offices. In fact, many people find it difficult in making payment for RTI fees. For cash payment one has to go to the office of public authority, which is time consuming and total wastage of money. If one get the draft made from bank, he/she will have to pay Rs 25 to Rs 40 for getting a draft of Rs. 10/20 etc., which is no way sensible from any point of view.
A challenging thing in getting draft is, in whose favour the draft should be made? Most of the offices of public authorities on their websites or notice boards do not clearly mention in whose favour a draft to be made. I personally use Indian Postal Order (IPO) for my RTI application as it is very convenient and money saving affair, e.g. if one gets the IPO of Rs 10, he/she has to pay Rs 11 only. One can send IPO with RTI application without writing name of the person or designation in whose favour IPO to me made if he/she fails to get the details of it. The Office of Public Authority fills the required details and encash the IPO. IPO is available in eight denomination i.e. 1, 2, 5, 7 10, 20, 50, 100. But IPO is not desirable from the government’s point of view as the government spends Rs 22 on cashing a postal order of Rs. 10.
Working of RTI commissions
I filed an RTI application in the office of Central Information Commissions (CIC), New Delhi in October 2013 asking information about pendency of appeals, complaints etc. Followings are some findings. Commission does not compile statistics separately for appeals and complaints. Only details of 2005-2006 provided. As on October 2013 total 24,326 cases are pending for disposal. The commission has not details regarding appeals, complaints pending since 2005.
No information is available regarding penalty (Sec 20(1)), compensation (Sec 19(8) (b)) awarded and disciplinary action (Sec 20(2)) taken under RTI Act, 2005. There is vacancy of six information commissioners and 20 staff members. It is clear from the reply that the CIC is not maintaining required data which it is supposed to have. It also collects and compiles return from offices of information commissions across the country but has failed to maintain it.
I filed a similar application in the office of Gujarat State Information Commission (GSIC), Gandhinagar, in October 2013, and following are some the findings: From October 2005 to October 2013, it received a total of 39,068 cases (30,057 appeals plus 9,011 complaints). It disposed of 28,750 (20,244 appeals plus 8,506 complaints) of them. As on October 31, 2013, a total of 10,318 cases are pending with the commission.
The GSIC does not have proper information on penalty levied, compensation awarded, disciplinary action taken against public authority officer etc. I also asked the status of two of the appeals filed before it, and I found that the appeal files were missing from the office.
Lacunae in RTI policies
There is lacuna in policies both at central and state level regarding effective implementation of the RTI Act. Lot of disparity can be seen in RTI rules of various states. Some states are doing a very good job in development of the RTI Act, but some are not taking much interest in it.
Followings are some of the recommendations for development of RTI Act:
1. There should be full disclosure (pro-active) under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act.
2. RTI application/appeal formats should be standardization.
3. There should be viable payment options for RTI application fees.
4. Benches of commission should be established in the state as per the need.
5. The Whistle Blowers’ Protection Bill should be passed at the earliest.
6. Video conferencing facility should be installed in commission’s office for hearing appeal/complaint.
7. Vacancies of information commissioners should be filled up at the earliest both at the central level and at the state level. Appeals, complaints are pending for months/years because of existing vacancies.
8. Robust centralized online RTI application/appeal mechanism should be set up.
9. Faster letter dispatch system should be developed to send replies. In most of the cases the reply prepared on a particular date, the official would sign the letter after a few days, putting the date of signature, and ultimately it would be dispatched after a few more days. This process takes 5-10 days.
10. A helpline centre for RTI application/appeal should set up.
11. RTI application facilitation centre should be set up at a big public authority office.
12. Intensive campaign for RTI Awareness as envisioned in Section 26 of the RTI Act, 2005 should be carried out.
13. SMS alert service should be started for the date of hearing. Reminder should be sent to parties a couple of days before the hearing.
To facilitate manual RTI application, the Government of India/ state governments should provide for various options for fees payment in their respective RTI rules. To avoid these options, the Department of Posts should come up with RTI stamp so that RTI fees payment can be streamlined and made hassle free. The Central Information Commission has already asked Department of Posts to introduce RTI stamp and open counters for receiving application at post offices.
How to go online
It has been observed that there is no centralized online process system for RTI application/appeal in states. Hardly any state has come up with online RTI application/appeal filing which will save lot of time and money. The Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions, Department of Personnel & Training, Government of India, launched RTI web portal (www.rtionline.gov.in) for online filing of RTI application in April 2013 covering only the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) initially but now almost all Ministries/Departments of Government of India have been covered.
The application filed through this web portal would electronically reach the Nodal Officer. The Nodal Officer would access the portal at least twice in a day. He would transmit the RTI application electronically to the concerned CPIO. In case the RTI application is not meant for the department, the Nodal Officer would transfer the application physically to the concerned public authority, under section 6(3) of the RTI Act. The applicant can pay the prescribed fee through internet banking via the State Bank of India and its associate banks or credit/debit card.
This website covers only central ministries/departments. It should expand its scope and cover all offices of Central Public Authorities. At state Level, department-wise online application RTI process will not serve the purpose as sometimes a person will not be able to make out which department is involved in the matter. Hence, I propose a state level centralized online application/appeal process to make it hassles free.
There should be an RTI portal for every state in India. After opening the portal, there should be tab for each district. Clicking on district tab, there should be a list of public authorities covered under those districts. In addition to that talukas can be put under the heading of districts to make RTI application/appeal more convenient. One can submit online application/appeal to the concerned public authority on the portal.
In case some public authorities are not covered in the portal for some reason, one can submit RTI application/appeal to the facilitation centre by filling up details of public authority. The facilitation centre should forward that application to the concerned public authority.
* Ph.D. Scholar of Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, Academic Associate, Business Policy Area, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. This is abridged version of the paper “Right to Information Act in India: An Appraisal”, presented by the writer at the National Conference on Participatory Democracy and Good Governance organized by the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar