Around one-third of information commissions in India are headless, one-fourth of information commission posts are lying vacant and in Jharkhand and Tripura, the commissions are defunct, two reports on 15 years of the Right To Information (RTI) law said on Monday.
The transparency law came into force on October 10, 2005, giving a statutory right to citizens to seek a response from the government to questions they had; in a way, it became the biggest tool of grievance redressal. With the passage of time, the burden of replying to the applications increased, which lengthened the response time, leading to a higher backlog of RTI applications.
In these 15 years, around 33 million RTI applications were filed with various government departments across the country, said Transparency International India (TII), an anti-corruption watchdog; the number is based on annual reports of information commissions across India.
Only about 9% of these RTI applications resulted in a second appeal, meaning that over 90% of the applicants were satisfied with the government’s response, which transparency law activists said is RTI’s biggest achievement.
The first appeal against a dissatisfactory RTI reply is filed with the government department from where the reply is sought. And, the second appeal is with the information commissions, an independent body that can direct departments to provide the information and impose a fine for delay in providing it.
As India headed into the 15th year of RTI amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the information commissions received severe setbacks.
The Jharkhand information commission is without a commissioner since May 8, 2020, when the incumbent, acting chief information commissioner Himanshu Chaudhary, retired. “We have invited applications in January but the appointment is pending in the absence of clear directives from the assembly secretariat,” said Sudhir Kumar Ranjan, joint secretary, Jharkhand’s personnel department. The appointment is stuck as the state Assembly is yet to appoint leader of opposition, who is a member of the appointments committee headed by the chief minister.
The Tripura information commission also has not had a single commissioner since April 2020, after G Kameswara Rao, former chief secretary, retired. State government officials said they were in the process of making the appointment.
A report by Satark Nagarik Sangathan (SNS), a citizens’ group working to promote transparency in government functioning, said nine states including Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan do not have a chief information commissioner, whose appointment under the RTI law is a statutory requirement. “The absence of a commissioner has serious ramifications for the effective functioning of the information commissions since the RTI Act envisages a critical role for the chief, including, superintendence, management and direction of commission’s affairs,” the SNS report said.
The Central Information Commission (CIC), which hears second appeals against all central government departments and union territories, has also been without a head since August 17, 2020.
The department of personnel and training said the process of appointing a chief has started.
Anjali Bhardwaj of SNS said showing complete lack of political will, the governments are not making appointments of commissioners in a timely manner leading to backlog of 220,000 cases till July 31, 2020. “Today, one of the challenges the transparency regime faces is the attack on transparency watchdogs,” she said.
The TII report said 24% of the information commissioner posts in 28 states were lying vacant despite a Supreme Court order on February 15, 2019, directing all states and the Centre to fill all the vacant posts within six months, saying seeking information was a “fundamental right”. The court also lamented that most of the information commissioners appointed under the public service category were retired bureaucrats while asking states to select people from diverse backgrounds in the commissions.
During the Covid pandemic, only 10 of the 28 information commissions worked and in these commissions, very few appeals were heard because of technical snags. “Instead of providing respite during Covid, the transparency watchdogs in most states stopped functioning. The pandemic has further undermined one of the most important governance legislations,” said SR Wadwa, chairman of TII.
The SNS report said despite the RTI law being in place for 15 years, many information commissions are not very transparent about their functioning. “Many commissions still provide very less information on their orders and appeals, making analysis of their work difficult,” said Bhardwaj, adding that the Bihar information commission does not even have a website.
Several studies on RTI done in the past decade show that the transparency law has improved governance and checked petty corruption, but its misuse has also increased manifold. Now, most public information officers are reluctant to give information to serial RTI applicants.
RTI has proved to be “curative” and “preventive” for corruption and improved governance, but its misuse has emerged as a major obstacle in its effectiveness, said Padma awardee RTI activist Subhash Aggarwal.
“There is a need to increase RTI fees and seek identity documents as some states such as Punjab and Odisha have done to prevent the misuse,” he said.
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