Tardy functioning of information commissions during COVID-19 pandemic

Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) & Centre for Equity Studies (CES) have published ‘Report Card of Information Commissions, 2019-20’ in order to mark 15 years of the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in October 2020. A note:

Prepared by a team coordinated by Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri, the report examines the performance of the Central Information Commission and 28 state commissions in India in terms of the: number of commissioners working in each commission; background and gender composition of commissions; number of appeals and complaints registered and disposed; the average annual disposal per commissioner; number of appeals/complaints returned by commissions; number of pending cases; estimated waiting time for the disposal of an appeal/complaint; impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the functioning of information commissions; frequency of violations penalised by commissions; compensation awarded by commissions and transparency in their working. The report covers the period April 2019 to October 2020.

Key findings of the report include:

  • 9 out of 29 (31%) Information Commissions were found to be headless i.e. functioning without a Chief.
  • 2 commissions – Jharkhand and Tripura- were completely defunct as no new commissioners were appointed upon the incumbents demitting office.
  • Nearly 60% of commissioners have been retired government officials. In terms of gender diversity, only 10% of all information commissioners across the country have been women. Currently, no commission is headed by a woman.
  • 1,88,508 appeals and complaints were registered between April 1, 2019 and July 31, 2020 by commissions for whom relevant information was available. During the same time period, 2,01,166 were disposed.
  • More than 2.3 lakh appeals and complaints were pending on July 31, 2020 in the 23 information commissions from which data was obtained. The backlog has been steadily increasing as compared to the findings of previous years.
  • Several commissions had a tardy rate of disposal of cases. For instance, the Odisha SIC had a concerningly low annual average disposal rate of 1,101 cases per commissioner (about 4 cases a day), even though nearly 16,000 cases were pending in the SIC. The disposal rate of the CIC also fell short of the norm set by it.
  • Vacancies in commissions, coupled with low rates of disposal by commissioners, are resulting in large pendencies with information seekers having to wait for months, even years, to have their cases heard. The report shows that the Odisha SIC would take 8 years and 9 months to dispose a matter. In Jharkhand SIC, it would take 4 years and 1 month, while in Maharashtra, CIC, Rajasthan, Telangana and Nagaland it would take 2 years or more. The assessment shows that 10 commissions would take more than 1 year to dispose a matter.
  • Information commissions did not impose penalties in more than 96% of the cases where they were imposable sending out a signal to public authorities that violations of people’s RTI will not result in any consequences.

Excerpts on the functioning of the CIC and ICs during COVID-19 period from the report:

Given the unprecedented crisis gripping the nation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to scrutinize the functioning of information commissions now is perhaps greater than ever before. Relief and welfare programmes funded through public money are the sole lifeline of millions who have suddenly lost income-earning opportunities after the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the disease. If the poor and marginalised affected by the public health emergency are to have any hope of obtaining the benefits of government schemes, they must have access to relevant information and the programmes must be run in a transparent manner. At a time when incentives for secrecy are great, and the scope for discretionary actions wide, the role of information commissions is crucial to ensure that people can obtain information on healthcare facilities, social security programs and delivery of essential goods and services meant for those in distress.

Several Information Commissions (ICs) were non-functional, or were functioning at reduced capacity despite large backlogs, as the posts of commissioners and chief information commissioners were vacant. This is particularly concerning given the crisis situation due to the COVID 19 pandemic, which has made people, including migrant workers, even more dependent on government provision of essential goods and services like healthcare, food and social security. Without access to relevant information citizens are unable to get their rights and entitlements and corruption thrives.

India went into a total lockdown on March 25, 2020 to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. As per the Central government guidelines, in phase 1 of the lockdown (March 25 to April 14) all government offices, autonomous bodies and commercial establishments, other than those involved in essential and emergency services, were closed. During phase 2, from April 20, 2020 onwards, among other relaxations, all government offices, autonomous bodies and public corporations were allowed to open. Officials of the rank of Deputy Secretary and above were allowed to attend office, while below that rank, attendance of upto 33% of staff was allowed. Restrictions were progressively eased subsequently. In addition to the guidelines by the central government, states also issued guidelines regarding lockdown restrictions based on the severity of the pandemic in their jurisdiction.

Information was sought under the RTI Act from each commission regarding: the period for which hearings were suspended on account of the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent lockdowns; whether any provision was made for hearing urgent appeals/complaints or those related to life or liberty during the period hearings were suspended; and copies of notifications regarding functioning of commissions during the pandemic. In addition, relevant information was also accessed from the respective websites of the commissions.

An analysis of the information obtained from 23 commissions shows that the SIC of Meghalaya suspended all hearings for the longest period of time i.e. 127 days, followed by the Rajasthan SIC which suspended hearings for 105 days. The SIC of West Bengal initially suspended hearings for 56 days (from March 23 to May 17), following which they started online hearings. However, the SIC again suspended hearings in June, September and October on account of SIC staff being detected COVID positive. At the time of finalising of this report (October 21), hearings had again been suspended vide notification dated October 13, which stated that “in view of further identification of COVID19 positive case within the office of West Bengal Information Commission, online hearings of appeals and complaints under the RTI ACT, 2005 have been suspended with immediate effect and will resume after the Puja vacations”.

The Central Information Commission (CIC) suspended hearings for the least amount of time i.e. 21 days during the initial lockdown. Of the 21 commissions which provided relevant information, only 35% made provision for hearing urgent matters or those related to life of liberty during the period when hearings were suspended.

A major constraint faced by Public Information Officers (PIOs) in providing information in a timely manner is the poor state of record management in most public authorities. This also proved to be a bottleneck during the lockdown imposed during COVID pandemic when accessing physical files was difficult. Section 4(1)(a) of the RTI Act obligates every public authority to properly manage and speedily computerize its records. However, given the tardy progress in this direction, perhaps what is needed is a national task force specifically charged with digitization and scanning all office records in a time bound manner and organizing them. ICs should exercise the vast powers provided to them under the RTI Act and use these to ensure that records are managed in a way that they facilitate access to information of the public.

*The full report can be accessed here

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