RTI Act: 15 years on, transparency a mirage

RTI Act: 15 years on, transparency a mirage

Toothless monster

Protestors raise slogans against the amendments to the Right to Information Act, in New Delhi in 2019. Photo/PTI 

Anjali Bharadwaj, a transparency activist based out of New Delhi, made a simple query with the Chief Labour Commissioner seeking the details of allocations made to states from the PM-CARES fund. Her RTI request was transferred five times before it was answered.

Queries by other activists about the relief fund — the date on which it was granted an FCRA licence and income tax rebate, for instance — remain unanswered. The Prime Minister’s office has stonewalled all queries, stating that the PM-CARES fund, set up to receive grants and provide relief during the Covid-19 pandemic and other such situations in the future, is not a public authority and bears no scrutiny under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.  

For four years, RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak has been fighting to find out the name of the Deputy Governor who placed the demonetisation proposal before the RBI board and the representations it received; his queries on electoral bonds and the representations received have also gone unanswered.   

With the landmark transparency law set to complete 15 years on October 12, responses to queries on various aspects of the government’s functioning continue to be delayed, or simply ignored.

Read: The quest for truth turns costly for RTI activists

Posts vacant

The government’s actions over the past years have further weakened the RTI regime: amendments have diluted various mechanisms under the Act; there is undue delay in filling up vacancies in the Central Information Commission (CIC), leaving it without a person in charge for the fifth time in the past six years.

The statutory body has just five Information Commissioners at present, against a sanctioned strength of 11, including Chief Information Commissioner, while 36,000 cases are pending.        

A conservative estimate by activists puts the number of RTI requests received across the country anywhere between 55 - 65 lakh per year. In 2018 - 19, the public authorities under the Central government alone received 13.70 lakh queries. Around 4.7% of these appeals were rejected. And nearly 1.51 lakh ‘first appeals’ were filed, indicating that a large number of people found the information provided unsatisfactory.

It has taken P Muthian 12 years and a protracted battle at the Madras High Court to get the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission to answer his query about vacancies and jobs allocated to the Most Backward Communities and select sub-castes in the state between 2006 and 2008.

On September 9, the Madras High Court came down heavily on Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission which denied Muthian’s requests, saying that Public Information Officers who “mechanically reject” RTI queries should be shown the door.

Muthian, a retired Deputy Collector, had the patience and means to take up the fight but thousands of common citizens have increasingly received a raw deal with the RTI.

Also read: RTI Act: The torchlight in a democracy

Stoic silence

Transparency activists list the various methods deployed to frustrate request for information — from queries being transferred from one desk to the other (so the applicants lose track of their original request), half-baked responses, denying information by invoking various sections (see table) or even being met with a stoic silence.

“People are not well-versed in procedures. Framing the queries are important. If you ask a question like what action has been taken on a particular complaint, the Public Information Officer flatly denies a response, saying that you are asking to interpret. They resort to this sort of strategy, even though the Supreme Court has said that if answers are available in files, they should be given,” Nayak says.

According to transparency activist Lokesh Batra, even approaching the CIC might not help one get the desired response, given the pendency of cases and the time the appeals take. “There is no point in going to the CIC if one is going to get a hearing after one or two years,” he says.

The “poor state of information maintenance” is another point that bothers activists, who point to instances where people have received different data from separate departments, for the same set of questions.

In response, government officials complain that they are bombarded with queries by “professional RTI activists” and that a lot of their time is taken by responding to such queries. A popular narrative is that the public information officer is overburdened with these RTI requests, with no incentive to work.  

However, a study by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative shows that a Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) handled less than 42 RTIs in 2012-13, as against 68 queries in 2018-19. “Does handling between 4-6 RTI applications per month amount to spending 75% of a CPIO’s time?” the study asked, while acknowledging that certain departments have not appointed adequate PIOs in comparison to the queries it receives.

Read: Whistleblowing fraught with danger in Karnataka

Proactive disclosure 

In turn, the activists say that 70% of the RTIs could be avoided if the Ministries and departments proactively disclose information.

The other issue is that PIOs indiscriminately invoke sections of the RTI Act to deny information. These sections exempt disclosure of information that deals with the sovereignty and integrity of the country, is of scientific or economic interest, has a copyright and third party information among others to deny information. 

In more than 50% of RTI applications, Section 8(1) is invoked to deny information. In Muthian’s case, Section 8 (1) (d), dealing with information pertaining to “commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property” was invoked, prompting Justice S Vaidyanathan to write in the judgement, “it is apparent that TNPSC had first decided not to give details and thereafter, searched for relevant provisions.” 

RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj says there is a “total lack of will” to provide information. She points to the recent amendments to the RTI Act 2005, which allows the government to fix the salaries and tenure of Information Commissioners at the Centre and State level. “The amendments practically undermine the autonomy of the Information Commissioners. There will be fear among the Information Commissioners about revealing information that is inconvenient to the government. Some will work fiercely independent. But for most, it will have a chilling
effect,” she says.

Toothless monster

With the 15th anniversary of the landmark Act coming up, transparency activists are also worried about the total lack of timely appointments at the CIC. The delay in appointments takes place despite the government having advance knowledge about the date on which an Information Commissioner is set to retire. The delays continue despite the Supreme Court directing the Centre to initiate the process of selecting the commissioner one or two months before the vacancy arises. 

Bhardwaj says that since May 2014, not a single commissioner of the CIC has been appointed without citizens having to approach courts.

“What we would want from a government that says is committed to transparency, good governance and anti-corruption is to empower people to fight corruption. For this, RTI is the one law that enables them. What the government should do is to ensure an active and simpler transparency mechanism and not dismantle the entire structure,” Bhardwaj sums up.