While close to 0.3 million (280,288) appeals and complaints were registered, and a little over two lakh (2,16,354) were disposed, the Central Information Commission (CIC) during the same period returned a whopping 23,791 second appeals out of the 28,174 it received, amounting to over 84%, as per the report by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES) in October 2019, released last week.
The assessment by the study group, titled `Report Card of Information Commissions 2019’ reveals that apart from the CIC, the SICs of Gujarat and Chhattisgarh returned a large number of appeals/complaints, without passing any orders, during the same period. The SIC of Gujarat returned 2,117 cases while it registered 13,534 cases during the period under review.
The report states that the trend of a large number of appeals or complaints being returned by the CIC began in 2015, leading to several RTI activists writing to the then Chief Information Commissioner of the CIC urging that “the commission proactively and publicly disclose information on the number of appeals/complaints being returned and also the reasons for returning them.”
All deficiency memos, which record the reason for returning an appeal/complaint, were then publicly disclosed on-line. Subsequently, however, these memos, have again been made inaccessible to the public and can be accessed only if the appeal/complaint number is known.
States the Report, “Since June 2018, the CIC has started disclosing additional details about appeals/complaints returned by providing a break up of how many were returned due to deficiencies and how many were returned because they were ineligible for registration- either because they related to the jurisdiction of a state IC or were premature, time barred or duplicates. In addition, the CIC is now also disclosing how many appeals/complaints were re-submitted to the CIC after addressing the deficiency.
The data on the CIC website for June 2018 to December 2018 showed that only about 22% of cases which were returned due to deficiencies were re-submitted to the CIC.’’
Although the Information Commissions are approached by RTI applicants for second appeals only in 5% of the total RTI applications, the study states that, “this does not mean that in 95% of the cases people get access to the information they sought. The RaaG & CES 2014 assessment estimated that only about 45% of RTI applications were successful in terms of obtaining the information requested. Therefore, of the remaining 55%, less than 10% actually end up filing a second appeal or complaint - perhaps because many of those who file RTI applications do not have the resources or skills needed to approach ICs.’’
Therefore, “the practice being followed by the CIC and several SICs, of returning a very large number of appeals and complaints without passing any orders, creates an apprehension that this is perhaps a way of frustrating information seekers in a bid to reduce backlogs in ICs since many people, especially the poor and marginalised, would feel discouraged and often give up if their appeal/complaint is returned.’’
The Report suggests the following plan of action for the government:
· Appropriate governments must examine the rules made by them under the RTI Act for filing appeals and complaints with ICs and ensure that the procedures prescribed therein are in conformity with the law and are people-friendly.
· RTI rules should not allow for returning of appeals/complaints due to minor or procedural defects. They must place an obligation on ICs to assist people in filing appeals and complaints, rather than summarily returning them due to a deficiency.
· The websites of ICs and public authorities must prominently display information about the procedure for filing an appeal/complaint.
· Commissions must adopt mechanisms to assist and facilitate people in the process of registering their appeals/complaints. All ICs must provide a helpline and facilitation desk where people can seek advice and assistance.
· In cases where a substantive deficiency is noticed, for instance if a second appeal has been filed without exhausting the first appeal process or where an appeal/complaint which should lie with the CIC has been filed to the SIC or vice versa, the commission should, to the extent possible, facilitate remedial action by forwarding the appeal/complaint to the appropriate authority, with a copy to the appellant. Returning an appeal/complaint should be a last resort adopted by ICs.
· Further, wherever appeals and complaints are returned, the deficiency memo which enunciates the reason for the return must be made public, in addition to being communicated to the appellant/complainant. This is, in any case, a requirement under Section 4 of the RTI Act and would enable public scrutiny of the process.
“Report Card of Information Commissions in India” (2018) assessed the performance of information commissions across the country during the period January 2016 to October 2017 and its findings of the report became the basis of a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court (SC) to ensure timely and transparent appointment of information commissioners in the country. The 2019 Report also contains the performance report cards of all 29 information commissions in the country for 2018-19.
Anjali Bharadwaj, a member of the group which compiled this report, states, “this report has found that despite the directions of the Supreme Court in February 2019 to appoint information commissioners to the Central and State Information Commissions, many appointments have not yet been made. In fact currently four posts of information commissioners in the CIC are vacant even as the backlog of appeals/complaints is more than 33,000.’’
RTI used for compiling this report:
The report is primarily based on an analysis of information accessed under the RTI Act from Information Commissions (ICs) across India. For the purpose of the assessment, all 29 ICs set up under the RTI Act, 2005, were covered. A total of 129 applications under the RTI Act were filed with state information commissions (SICs) and the Central Information Commission (CIC). The information sought included:
• Number of appeals and complaints registered, disposed and returned by each IC for the period January 2018 till March 2019;
• Number of appeals and complaints pending before each IC on 31 March 2018 and 31 March 2019;
• Number of appeals or complaints in which ICs imposed penalties, quantum of penalties imposed and the amount recovered, for the period January 2018 till March 2019;
• Number of appeals or complaints in which ICs awarded compensation and the quantum of compensation awarded by each IC, for the period January 2018 till March 2019;
• Number of cases in which disciplinary action was recommended by ICs, for the period January 2018 till March 2019;
• Latest year for which the annual report of each IC was published;
• Details of backgrounds of past and present information commissioners;
• Number of appeals and complaints filed before ICs stating that the information sought relates to the life or liberty of a person, during the period January 2018 till March 2019.
(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”