By Abhishek Tajbije*
On June 21, 2005, the Right to Information Act was notified in India’s Gazette, and its implementation started on October 12, 2005. As per rti.gov.in, the objectives of the Right to Information Act are to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in a real sense. Deciphering the objectives and the progress of the RTI Act till now, one can say that the Act progressed backward in the last 15 years.
There have been some significant achievements (may not be exhaustive) of the RTI Act.
1. Unravelling of 2G Scam
2. Unearthing of Adarsh Housing Scheme Scam
3. Discovering of Commonwealth Games 2010 Scam
4. Disclosure of the procedural lapses in the demonetization scheme
Post 15 years on enactment, one could have expected a long list of achievements than above. That further solidifies our stance that the Act is still far away from its objectives. There are multi-fold issues in the core structure of the Act, as well as the implementation.
1. Vacancies in Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs):
The Central Information Commission is currently run by five Information Commissioners instead of a sanctioned strength of 11, including the Chief Information Officer (CIO). Only recently, the government has provided recommendations for the appointment of CIO and three commissioners. Talking about the State Information Commissions (SICs), six states, viz., Goa, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Tripura, Telangana, and Uttar Pradesh, have the post of Chief Information Officer vacant. RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj says that since May 2014, CIC commissioner is appointed by the government only after citizens approach the Supreme Court for the same.
As per estimations of Mr. Venkatesh Nayak, who is heading the Access to Information Program at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), nearly 55 lakhs RTIs are filled in India per year. ~20% of these are received by Central Government Authorities, and ~5% are rejected. Also, ~1.5 lakhs first appeals are filled, and an equal number of cases are pending. The statistics indicate that the lack of adequate human capital has hampered access to information and the quality of replies.
2. RTI Act Amendments 2019:
The recent amendments to the RTI Act empower the government with the right to decide the compensation and tenure of Information Commissioners at the Centre and State level. Many activists and former public information officers believe that the amendments undermine the autonomy of the information commissioners. Information Commissioners decide information access related grievances of citizens where the government is the opposing party most of the time. Therefore, giving government the control over the salaries and tenure impinges on their ability to adjudicate over such disputes without fear or favor. Hence, it is necessary to amend the RTI Act in order to empower better the information officer rather than undermining his/ her authority.
3. Accountability of Public Information Officers:
Government’s own data indicates that RTI applications are not a huge burden on most public authorities. However, in some public authorities such as banks, municipal corporations, education, and health departments with a large clientele, the RTI application workload is likely to be higher. So adequate human resources and technical support must be provided to PIOs to improve their performance, efficiency, and accountability.
4. Lack of public awareness about the framing of the queries
The citizens, especially those from rural areas, do not know the proper ways/ procedures to frame/ file the queries in order to receive the required information. The officers invoke different sections under the RTI Act to deny information to such queries. The most frequently invoked exemption is Section 8(1)(j) which is related to the personal privacy of an individual. Section 8(1)(d) is often misused by PIOs to deny information about their own public authorities without realising that it is intended to protect only third-party interests specified in that clause.
5. Lack of Single Database:
The government does not maintain a single database for information. Sometimes, significantly varying information is received in RTI replies from different government departments. Moreover, if one PIO denies some information while another gives it, it indicates a lack of uniformity in understanding and applying the law. This is often due to inadequate training.
1. The government needs to act immediately to fill the voids in the information commissions. In the future, it needs to follow the advice of the supreme court that the process for filling up a vacancy should be initiated at least 1-2 months before the vacancy is likely to occur.
2. The government officers working in information offices must be provided adequate training with the RTI Act and the related intricacies. As they act as the key node between the government authorities and the people, they must act towards achievement of RTI objectives.
To improve information officers’ accountability, it is necessary to employ key performance indicators to review their performance. These KPIs can further be used during promotions.
The RTI office, which is responsible for promoting transparency, must proactively initiate from its own. Minutes of all the internal meetings & statistics about RTIs (filled/ pending/ first appeals/ second appeals) must be made available to everyone via online portals.
3. In line with the Digital India initiative, the government can maintain a single database for public information. Moreover, the explicit information (without tinkering with privacy) should be made available on government portals.
For personal information (like All India Ranks in specific examinations, BPL/ APL status, etc.), a dedicated portal can be formed where every user can access only his/ her personal information using a dedicated ID and password. Aadhaar initiative and the requirement of Aadhaar card for accessing different government benefits can further facilitate the creation of the dedicated portal. This will reduce the RTI applications and overall burden on the information authorities. Also, the government’s transparent image will be solidified in line with the objective of the RTI Act.
4. The people should be made aware of the proper ways/ procedures to file RTI in order to receive the required information. Multiple awareness campaigns and workshops can be conducted to achieve the objective of the RTI Act. Different NGOs like CHRI and Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) are already working to spread awareness at the grass-root level. The government can collaborate with these NGOs to further the cause of RTI. RTI Act should be mainstreamed into the legal literacy and other citizen empowerment training programs conducted by every government agency, including legal services authorities from national to district level. RTI should be included in the curricula of school and college textbooks from Class V onwards so that children understand the value and usefulness of RTI.
*Student, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad