49% of RTI applications about information that is deliberately hidden from public
According to a study, nearly 49% of RTI applications are about information that ought to be available in the public domain as mandated under Section 4 of the RTI Act and another 18% are about information that should routinely be provided to citizens
It has been nine years since the Right to Information (RTI) Act has been implemented but what the most notable defiance by the public authorities is the proactive disclosure under Section 4. The Peoples Monitoring Report conducted by RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RAAG) and SAMYA – Centre for Equity Studies once again proves that the government is hell bent on official secrecy.
The in-depth study conducted by Anjali Bharadwaj, Amrita Johri and Shekhar Singh, across several states pinpoints to various facets of the RTI Act, but the section on pro-active disclosures is particularly distressing. The report states: “Nearly 70% of the RTI applications seek information that should have been proactively made public without citizens having to file an RTI application. About 49% sought information, which should have been proactively provided under section 4 of the RTI Act (or other similar sections in other laws). While 18% sought information that should have been proactively provided to the applicant without her having to file an RTI application either because they were responses that should have been given as per prescribed office procedures or under other laws.”
The study recommends that one or more Public Information Officers (PIOs) should be allocated the duty of ensuring whether Section 4 provisions are being implemented. The Information Commission should institute an enquiry if the PIO fails to provide information which comes under Section 4. The Commission should award compensation to the RTI applicant in the case of a second appeal wherein the information should have been pro-actively disclosed. The nodal agencies should ensure that public authorities are regularly updating information and templates that have been made for pro-active disclosures should be used widely by public authorities. Taking the Mizoram example, no payment should be levied on the RTI applicant for any information that he or she should have rightfully got under Section 4 of the RTI Act. The study also suggests the services of private agencies to monitor the implementation.
Following are the recommendations in detail:
• Appoint PIO to oversee Sec 4 compliance: Given the very poor implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act by most public authorities (Pas), the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) and the state nodal agencies should direct all PAs to designate one or more PIOs as responsible for ensuring compliance with all the provisions of section 4. Where these directions are not complied with by the PAs within a reasonable period, the ICs should use s. 19(8) (a) (ii) which “require” that each PA designate one or more PIOs responsible for ensuring compliance with all the provisions of section 4. [DoPT, state nodal departments, ICs]
• Institute enquiry against PIOs who do not comply: Where a complaint is received against non-compliance with any provision of Section 4, especially 4(1) (b), (c), and (d), the commission should institute an enquiry under s. 18(1)(f) read with s. 18(2) of the RTI Act, against the designated PIO or any other official responsible, as per S. 5(4) and 5(5) of the RTI Act. If the PIO or any other official is found guilty, an appropriate penalty should be imposed by the IC, under s. 20(1) of the RTI act
• Applicant should be compensated for waste of time: Where an appeal or complaint comes before an IC relating to information that should rightly have been made available suo motu under section 4 of the RTI Act, but was not, the IC should also exercise its powers under S. 19(8)(b) and award compensation to the appellant/complainant for having to waste time and energy seeking information that should have been provided proactively. The IC should also direct the PA to provide the information free of cost
• PIOs should consistently update information: To ensure that the information is proactively put out and is up to date, the RTI nodal agencies should direct all PAs that each web site, and other medium and publication, relating to S. 4 compliance must carry the date (where appropriate for each bit of information) on which the information was uploaded/printed and the date till which it is valid/it would be revalidated. ICs should encourage compliance by imposing heavy penalties and awarding compensation…
• Templates for proactive disclosures should be widely used: Though the DoPT has developed some comprehensive templates to facilitate proactive disclosure of information3 these are not yet being widely used. Also, many more templates are required for proactive disclosure of many other types of information. Therefore, appropriate governments and competent authorities should commission professional agencies to develop additional templates and to promote their use across public authorities
• Take help of professional agencies: A coordinated approach needs to be developed and implemented with nodal agencies and information commissions pushing public authorities to proactively disclose an increasing amount of information. Professional agencies can be encouraged to help the PAs do this, and even in some cases to take the responsibility of effectively displaying and regularly updating the information, on behalf of the PA. In many countries, including the USA, agencies external to the PA are given the responsibility of ensuring that public declarations required under the law are easily accessible, accurate, comprehensive, and updated.
• Applicants should get information free of cost: Learning from Mizoram (see Box 7.7 in Chapter 7), all appropriate governments and competent authorities should make a rule that no fee or additional fee would be charged for any application seeking information that should have been proactively provided or disclosed, but was not. ICs should also order refund of fee and additional fee when it comes to their notice that such fee has been charged for information that should actually have been, but was not, available proactively. This would encourage all PAs to ensure that all that was legally required to be proactively displayed or communicated was being disclosed.
The report rightly points out: “Imagine the saving in paper, PIO, FAA, and IC time, and the time of 30 lakh applicants.’’
Here is the circular released by the Indian government on proactive disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act…
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of
Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”