Tardy working of info panels

Tardy working of info panels

Over the last decade, the use of the RTI Act has expanded democratic space and empowered people in their struggle to secure basic rights and entitlements and combat corruption and arbitrary use of power. According to estimates, four to six million information applications are filed every year, making the Indian RTI Act, the most extensively used transparency legislation globally. The law is primarily used by the poor and marginalised, who are most dependent on government services for their survival.

Under the RTI Act, independent Information Commissions (ICs) have been set up at the Centre and in all the states to adjudicate appeals and complaints of citizens who have been denied access to information under the law. Commissions have extensive powers, including the power to order disclosure of information, penalising officials for delaying or denying information and compensating the appellant for any loss suffered.

As the RTI law turns 10, perhaps the greatest challenge facing it is the lackadaisical performance of ICs across the country. The functioning of the ICs is fraught with problems. A national assessment of the RTI Act, undertaken by RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RaaG) in 2014,found that in several ICs, the backlog of appeals and complaints has reached alarming levels - an appeal/complaint filed in the Madhya Pradesh IC would come up for hearing in 60 years! In West Bengal, it would take about 18 years to dispose an appeal/complaint.

Inordinate delays in accessing information effectively deny people their fundamental right to information and render the law meaningless, especially for those living at the margins. Information about availability of essential drugs at a government hospital or the status of old age pension payments would be useless unless provided in a timely manner.

One of the reasons for these staggering backlogs is that in the absence of timely appointments, the posts of Information Commissioners are allowed to remain vacant for long periods of time. In many states like Manipur, Assam, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Goa, there have been long stints, up to two years, when ICs have been completely non-functional, as the respective state governments failed to appoint even a single information commissioner.

Despite mounting pendencies, most ICs are not functioning at the full strength of 11 commissioners. The Central IC, which has a backlog of more than 40,000 cases, was functioning without a chief for over nine months, till finally after huge public pressure and on the court’s direction, the Central government made the appointment. Even now, the CIC is functioning with eight commissioners - three posts have been vacant for over a year.

High pendency

Another cause for the high levels of pendency is that most ICs have not put in place any norms on the number of cases each commissioner is expected to dispose of in a month. As a result, even well staffed ICs have tardy disposal rates. The national assessment found that the ICs of West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Assam had a monthly disposal rate of 43, 40 and 21 cases respectively, despite pendency running into thousands.

The RTI Act provides for mandatory imposition of a penalty of up to Rs 25,000 on public information officers violating the provisions of the law. In the period 2011 to 2013, ICs across the country imposed penalties in less than 4 per cent of the cases where they were imposable. Non-imposition of penalties sends a signal that violating the law will not invite any consequences and therefore, promotes a culture of impunity.

The great reluctance on the part of ICs to impose penalties could be traced to the fact that most commissioners- 87 per cent  of Chief Information Commissioners and more than 60 per cent of ICs - are former civil servants and bureaucrats who, perhaps, hesitate to penalise erstwhile colleagues. The previous chief information commissioner was a former director of the Intelligence Bureau – an organisation which is outside the purview of the RTI Act and functions in an environment of utmost secrecy.

Orders of the ICs related to information provision, penalty imposition and awarding compensation are routinely violated by public authorities. The impunity with which orders are flouted is best understood through the case of the six national political parties who were held to be public authorities under the RTI Act by the CIC and were directed to appoint public information officers in 2013. Till date, none of the parties has appointed an information officer nor started responding to RTI requests. One of the reasons for non-compliance with IC orders is that after hearing and giving directions, the Commission closes the case without monitoring compliance.

To ensure robustness of the transparency regime in the country, the functioning of the adjudicators under the RTI Act must improve.

While the government needs to make timely and appropriate appointments and provide adequate budgetary provisions for ICs, the commissions themselves need to look within and set their house in order.

(The writers are RTI activists and members of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information, New Delhi)

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