THE CONTEXT: Fifteen years have passed since the implementation of the landmark Right to Information Act, 2005. In this article, we will assess the performance of the Act along with the associated problems and possible suggestions.
Some success stories of RTI
- High number of applications being filled : There is a constant increase in the number of application being filed for seeking information. There are around 60 lakh cases filed every year as per an estimate.
- Attendance of the Village School Teacher in Panchanpur : Villagers sought information regarding attendance records, leave records and medical records of the absconding village school teacher. The teacher was summoned and suspended while a new teacher was appointed to the school thus upholding accountability of the system.
- Transparency in PDS for BPL Families, Bahraich, UP : When ration was not provided to the village between the period of Feb 2006 to December 2006, villagers filed an RTI regarding the acquisition and the distribution of the ration and also asked for copies of the ration records. The Kotedar was finally suspended after inquiry and thus upheld transparency in the system.
- Scams : Many scams such as Adarsh Society Scam, 2G scam, Commonwealth Games Scam, Indian red Cross Society Scam etc were found due to the application of RTI.
Problems with RTI Performance
- Capacity :The Central Information Commission has been headless since August 2020 leading to reduced capacity of the Commission. Similar, Odisha is functioning with only four commissioners and Rajasthan with three while Jharkhand and Tripura have none.
- Inter-state distribution : There is inter-state differences in the number of pending cases with the maximum being in Maharashtra followed by UP
- Low punishment to Government Officials : As per a study, government officials hardly face any punishment for violating the law. This sets a wrong precedent which promote complacent attitude to wards the Act in government officials.
- Pendency : Around 2.2 lakh cases are pending in Central and State Information Commissions which are the final court of appeal under the Act. It will take years to clear this backlog.
- Awareness : Awareness still eludes people of their rights provided under the RTI Act for holding public officials accountable.
- Failure of Courts to Uphold RTI : Court itself has failed to uphold RTI as seen in the RTI application for PM CARES or to the case seeking list of wilful defaulters from RBI.
RTI act salient features
- RTI Act provide for setting up of Central Information Commission and State Information Commission. These Commissions act as the Second Appellate Authority and also exercise supervision and monitoring over the functioning of Public Information Officers.
- Public authorities have to provide information as early as possible as but not later than 30 days (not later than 48 hours in the matters pertaining to life and liberty of an individual).
- In case of delay, the Central Information Commission or the State Information Commission can impose a penalty. The Commission can also recommend disciplinary proceedings against the officials guilty of the not providing information with malafide intention.
- In case of denial or not providing proper information an appellate structure has also been provided. First appeal lies with the First Appellate Authority nominated by the Department while the second appeal lies with the Central Information Commission or State Information Commission.
- Under the law, every commission should have a chief and up to 10 commissioners.
Supreme court ruling in CBSE vs. Aditya Bandhyopadhyay case, 2011
- RTI Act should not be “allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquillity and harmony among its citizens”.
- Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.
- The threat of penalties under the RTI Act and the pressure of the authorities under the RTI Act should not lead to employees of a public authorities prioritising `information furnishing’, at the cost of their normal and regular duties.”
The controversial verdict is being utilised by the PIOs to discourage RTI Applicants.
- Awareness : Government should undertake immediate and widespread dissemination of knowledge about the law, as mentioned in Section 26 of the Act.The media and the civil society can play a major role in spreading awareness.
- Change in the mindset of officials : Officials need to realise their authority will in no way be undermined by opening up official bureaus.
- Modernisation :Officials have to put extra hours of work for streamlining and record-keeping, weeding out records as per the procedure laid down and computerising maximum information with proper indexing. Information should be easily accessible by the people.
- Review of Laws : Even though the Act provides for precedence of its provisions over any other existing law that may contradict it, there is still a chance of conflict between laws. Thus, constant and consistent review and analysis of various provisions of the Act should be undertaken to ensure that it actually facilitates and does not restrict access to information.
In the present times, the incentives for secrecy are great, and the scope for discretionary actions wide, and thus, the role of information commissions is crucial for ensuring that people can obtain information on healthcare facilities, social security programs and delivery of essential goods and services meant for those in distress.
Questions to Ponder
- Critically analyse the performance of RTI in its life of 15 years.
- “Information is the currency of Democracy”. Comment.