Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS)
October 16, 2019
RTI Amendments are regressive, will impact RTI Act, says Justice Lokur
At a public meeting, held today to mark 14 years of the RTI Act in India, retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Madan Lokur said that the recent amendments made to the RTI Act are regressive and will have an impact on the functioning of the law. He highlighted that despite the passage of more than 2 months since the amendments, the central government had not made rules regarding the salary and tenure of information commissioners.
In July 2019, the RTI Act was amended by Parliament. The amendments empower the central government to make rules regarding the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief and other information commissioners of the Central Information Commission (CIC) and all state information commissions (SICs). It has been more than 2 months since the amendments received the assent of the President on August 1, 2019. However, till date the central government has not promulgated rules.
Justice Lokur said that the RTI law will continue to suffer till the rules are made. He said the RTI Act has empowered people to seek information of importance to them and hold the government accountable and that information commissions are crucial to the functioning of the law.
Justice Lokur was speaking at a public meeting organised by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS). The key findings of 2 reports by SNS on the functioning of information commissions across the country were also discussed.
The assessment titled, “Report Card of Information Commissions in India 2018-19” analyses the performance of all 29 information commissions set up under the RTI Act in terms of the number of commissioners functioning in the commission, the number of appeals/complaints pending, the time taken by the commission to dispose cases and frequency of penalties imposed by the commission. The report can be accessed at https://gallery.mailchimp.com/8de179c61862db71810797613/files/b6abff4f-aa58-4b90-a633-bddf6fba64e8/Report_Card_2019_04.pdf
The key findings of the report are given at the end of the press release.
Speaking at the public meeting, Sudhir Bhargava, the Chief Information Commissioner of the Central Information Commission stated that the commission was very concerned about the large backlog of appeals and complaints and the time taken to dispose cases. He said the commission was committed to ensure that people are able to access information under the RTI Act. He said that it was very heartening to see how the RTI Act had empowered people in the country, especially those living at the margins.
Speaking at the public meeting, Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan said that the “Report Card of Information Commissions in India” showed how governments across the country were trying to undermine the RTI Act. In several commissions, despite large number of pending appeals and complaints, governments had failed to take steps to appoint information commissioners, thereby frustrating peoples right to know. The Central Information Commission in December 2018, was functioning with just 3 information commissioners even as 8 posts, including that of the chief were vacant. Currently 4 vacancies persist in the CIC while the pendency has been rising every month and is currently more than 33,000. She highlighted that the information commission of Tripura has been completely defunct since May 2019 as not a single commissioner had been appointed, while the Andhra Pradesh SIC was not functional for 17 months (from May 2017 to October 2018). The SICs of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan are functioning without a Chief.
Many people shared their experience of using the RTI Act at the public meeting. Sarvadhan Singh, a resident of Begumpur spoke about how the RTI Act helped him seek information from the government and secure his old age pension. After applying for the pension, there was no response from the government. He made several visits to the department to no avail. Finally it was only after he filed an RTI application that the department started his pension and he received Rs. 20,000 as dues.
Several people also shared how they had been waiting for a long time for the disposal of their appeals/complaints. Sabbiran who lost her husband 14 years ago in an accident applied for the Widow Pension Scheme of the Delhi government. After waiting for over 10 months without a response, Sabbiran filed an RTI application to the department seeking information regarding action taken on her application. She did not receive any reply from the PIO or the first appellate authority of the department and finally filed a second appeal in the Central Information Commission on 08/06/2018. She is still waiting for her case to be heard by the commission.
The issue of non-compliance with orders of the information commissions was also highlighted. Several people shared that despite receiving progressive directions from the commission, government often did not comply with those.
Justice Lokur said that commissions must impose penalties for violations of the RTI Act as that will send a strong message to public authorities. He also urged the CIC to adopt a system of video recording and broadcasting their proceedings as that would ensure greater transparency and also promote peoples trust.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Harsh Mander, Shabnam Hashmi and Annie Raja also spoke at the public meeting.
The issue of attacks and killings of RTI users was also discussed. Ashish Ranjan of JJSS, Bihar spoke about the murders of Rajender Singh and Dharmendra Yadav who were killed for exposing corruption using the RTI Act.
The key findings of the Report Card of Information Commissions in India 2018-19 are given below:
- Vacancies in information commissions: The assessment found that several ICs were non-functional or were functioning at reduced capacity as the posts of commissioners, including that of the chief information commissioner, were vacant during the period under review. At the time of the publication of the report, there was no functional SIC in Tripura (since May 2019) while the Andhra Pradesh SIC was not functional for 17 months (from May 2017 to October 2018). The SICs of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan were functioning without a Chief. The Central Information Commission in December 2018, was functioning with just 3 information commissioners even as 8 posts, including that of the chief were vacant. Currently 4 vacancies persist in the CIC while the pendency has been rising every month and is currently more than 33,000. The SIC of Maharashtra has been functioning with just five information commissioners since early 2019 with nearly 46,000 appeals and complaints pending as of March 31, 2019 with the commission. The SIC of Odisha is functioning with 3 commissioners while more than 11,500 appeals and complaints were pending as of March 31, 2019.
- Backlogs of appeals/complaints in Information Commissions: The number of appeals and complaints pending on March 31, 2019 in the 26 information commissions, from which data was obtained, stood at an alarming figure of 2,18,347. The maximum number of appeals/complaints were pending in Uttar Pradesh (52,326) followed by Maharashtra (45,796) and CIC (29,995). The comparative data for these three commissions shows that the number of cases pending increased 20% between March 31, 2018 and March 31, 2019. The information commissions of Bihar, Karnataka and Uttarakhand did not provide requisite information on the backlog of appeals and complaints under the RTI Act. The information was also not available on their websites. (See section 4.2 in chapter 4 of the report for commission-wise backlog of appeals and complaints.)
- Long waiting time for disposal of an appeal/complaint: The large backlog of appeals and complaints in ICs results in information seekers having to wait for many months, even years, for their appeals and complaints to be heard. Using data on the backlog of appeals/complaints in ICs and their monthly rate of disposal of cases, the time it would take for an appeal/complaint filed with an IC was computed (assuming appeals and complaints are disposed in a chronological order). The analysis showed that the SIC of Andhra Pradesh had the longest estimated waiting period of 18 years. This was followed by the SIC of West Bengal- 7 years and 5 months and Odisha- 4 years and 3 months. (See section 4.3 in chapter 4 for commission-wise estimated waiting time.)
- Penalties: The assessment shows that penalties are imposed only in miniscule number of cases by the commissions. The data for 22 commissions shows that out of the 1.16 lakh cases disposed, penalty was imposed in only 2091 cases during the period (January 2018 to March 2019). The assessment found that penalties are imposed in only 3% of the cases in which they are imposable. (See chapter 5 for details)
- Transparency in the functioning of information commissions: Transparency in the functioning of ICs was assessed in terms of their responsiveness to the RTI Applications filed and whether they were regularly publishing their annual reports as required by the RTI Act. A total of 129 RTI applications were filed seeking identical information from all the 29 information commissions. The RTI applications were tracked to assess how each information commission performed as a public authority, in terms of maintaining and disclosing information. Only 12 out of 29 ICs provided full information in response to the RTI applications filed as part of this assessment.
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