Are information commissioners killing the RTI Act?

Information commissions are increasingly being lenient in penalising Public Information Officers (PIOs) for not providing information that they should, or being absent at hearings at the information commission. If so, are the information commissioners making PIOs and Appellate Authorities unaccountable?

Pune-based RTI (Right to Information) activist Vijay Kumbhar has triggered off a controversy through his column in the Marathi daily Pudhari that despite information commissioners being empowered to penalise Public Information Officers (PIOs), they do not do so even if they do not provide information to the applicant or remain absent for hearing at the information commission. Kumbhar states, “information commissioners are responsible for the worrying trend of government employees not being serious about the RTI anymore as they are often not held accountable.”


He cites two recent decisions of State Information Commissioners in Maharashtra on New Year’s Day, as examples. In the first decision, the applicant who had filed a RTI in July 2011 did not get the required reply and the First Appellate Authority (FAA) did not bother to conduct any hearing. This compelled the applicant to file second appeal with the information commission.


However, when the matter was heard at the state information commission, the commissioner merely ordered that information be given within a specific period by the PIO but he did not levy any penalty on the PIO or question the absence of both the PIO and FAA. Says Kumbhar, “in this case, the PIO or FAA did not bother about the RTI application or appeal filed before them. They even did not have the courtesy to attend the hearing of an appeal before the information commission. But the Commission in its order has not dealt with some basic questions like, what was the information the applicant had sought for? What were the reasons behind not furnishing the information by the PIO? Why didn’t the appellate authority conduct hearing on the first appeal? Why was the PIO and the appellate authority not present for the hearing before the information commission?” The least the information commissioner could have done, says Kumbhar is to issue a show-cause notice as to why they remained absent.


In the second case, says Kumbhar, the applicant did not receive the information that he had asked for from the PIO but the FAA dismissed his appeal by stating that the required information was provided to him by the PIO and that too,10 months after the applicant had filed his first appeal. During the second appeal hearing, the information commissioner did not go into details as to what information was asked for by the applicant? In such a case, the information commissioner has the power to impose fine on the PIO and reprimand the FAA for conducting the hearing after 10 long months but they were not pulled up. If the information commissioners are so lenient, then why should PIOs bother about applications they receive under RTI?


So, are information commissioners advertently or inadvertently killing the power of the RTI Act? Moneylife asked a cross-section of RTI activists:


RTI activist Maj Gen SCN Jatar (retd)

Information Commissioners cannot afford to be lax:  Kumbhar’s observations set out in reality how RTI commissioners are set to kill RTI. They do not realise that such decisions are taken as examples of superficiality and laxity in penalising errant PIOs. PIOs are apt to then follow the same methods again and again. The basic criteria that should govern good judgments are a) They should be well-reasoned so that these can be cited in future judgments and ii) they should give a clear message to the errant PIOs that avoiding or evading giving information, which should be in public domain, will not be tolerated. The two cases quoted by Kumbhar do not meet both the above criteria.


Former Central Information Commissioner and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi

Faster disposal of cases and reasonable threat of penalty required:  Most Information Commissioners use the penalty provision as if it was a death penalty to be imposed in the rarest of cases. I do not see any problem with who attends the hearing. The Commissioners should give orders for information irrespective of whether the PIO attends or not. The hearing is an opportunity to present one’s views or argue on required matters. If the appellant or PIO does not attend, they may not want the opportunity of hearing. To believe that when either side is not present, a Commissioner must rule in favour of one who is present does not appear correct or desirable.


I had levied 521 penalties totalling Rs.92 lakh in the 20,400 cases which I decided in three years and nine months.  The rest of the Central Information Commissioners collectively imposed penalties in about 330 cases in the Commission and had decided about 80,000 cases. There is no doubt that there is a link of penalty imposition with compliance of the law. If cases are decided fast, and there is a fear of penalties, the PIOs and First appellate authorities become more alert and try to meet the requirements of the law. The total cases received by the Central Commission rose by about 50% in a two year period from 2009 to 2011. The cases for Municipal Corporation of Delhi—which I handled throughout my tenure rose by only 15%. This indicates that faster disposal and a reasonable threat of penalties would get better compliance of the law.


RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal

Each order of Information commission should be comprehensive: It is usually observed that generally penalties are not imposed by Information Commissioners thereby making Public Information Officers (PIOs) lethargic towards complying with provisions of the RTI Act. There should be a practice whereby each order of Information Commissions may carry all the relevant dates like filing a RTI petition, reply of PIO, filing first appeal and of appeal-order. There should be auto-calculation of penalty in each verdict of Information Commissions making penal-provisions under Section 20 of the RTI Act mandatory rather than discretionary as at present. Reasons for waiving or reducing applicable penalty should be specifically mentioned in verdicts of Information Commissions. Information Commissions should maintain record of penalties imposed. Non-payment of penalties in specified time should be reported once in a month to Cabinet Secretary/Chief Secretary who should be duty-bound to initiate disciplinary action against defaulting officers apart from taking steps to recover penalty-amounts from salary/pension payable.


RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd)

Applicants should be innovative, interactive with PIOs:  Every applicant must realise that it is only after the RTI Act that citizens have become participative in governance. RTI has given us a chance to be an integral part of public accountability so we should not take an adverse stance against PIOs as far as possible. Every RTI applicant should make untiring efforts not to take the case up to the Information commission level as he or she would face inordinate delays, even up to two years. I use innovative methods to interact with the PIOs to extract information in case they hesitate to provide it. Today, I have developed good relations with many public authorities and they sometimes call me for suggestions or advice. Also, after the 2G scam it has been observed that every single reply under RTI at least in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) goes to the top bureaucrat so what is the use of blaming or penalising PIOs who are at the mercy of their bosses? Also, in the information commissions, it is the bureaucrats who create more hurdles than the information commissioners themselves.


Researcher and RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak

Public Authorities should take implementation of RTI Act seriously: I agree that to make government employees take RTI seriously PIOs should be penalised but that is just one of the solutions. Penalty cannot be the only deterrent as much as vigilance by higher authorities can be. It is the responsibility of public authorities to clearly push for policy of transparency and that should be visible in action and not by merely issuing paper orders. Serious implementation of RTI cannot be only a PIO’s headache. The top brass of every public authority should regularly monitor and be vigilant about transparency. Mechanisms to check it should work efficiently and should be given top priority. Targets should be set for accountability. Every office has a Monthly Monitoring Report (MMR). It is also called the Monthly Progressive Implementation Calendar in Karnataka. It requires reporting physical and financial progress to superiors who in turn give guidance on the basis of the report. There should also be scrutiny at the highest level, which is legislature. Such professional monitoring has not been seen for RTI. It is only when the government employees know that someone is seriously watching over them, that everyone down the line will take RTI seriously. Perhaps some incentives like increased funding or an award to the Public Authority which implements RTI diligently could help.


To read more from Vinita Deshmukh, please click here.

(Vinita Deshmukh is the 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”.)

Sarvesh Prabhu Konkar
3 years ago
I totally agree with the fact that indeed the State Information Commissioners are killing the RTI act. All the judgements posted by State Information Commissioner, Brihanmumbai are available for everyone to read on the website under the section Decisions - Brihanmumbai. The SIC has just informed the PIO to give the information requested. The PIO has to give information within 1 month of filing RTI. In Brihan Mumbai the second appeal hearing comes up for hearing after minimum 1 year 3 months. The applicant has to wait for RTI reply from PIO for 1 month and then file first appeal and wait for another one and half month. Second appeal then has to be filed which takes 1 year 3 months to come up for hearing. In the hearing the Information commissioners merely asks the PIO to give the information requested instead of imposing penalties. So the PIO has the luxury to delay in giving the information by almost 2 years from when the RTI is filed. I have personally gone through all this and see that PIO has a upperhand. There should be a mechanism in place wherein penalty is imposed on PIO's who err in their obligations and duties.
mansi agnihotri
5 years ago
hey... please can anybody tell me, what recourse can one opt for if he receives threat calls after filing RTI. if we file a complaint to cic under section 18 then what kind of security will be provided, because as far as my research is concerned cic doesn't have much to do with it. then what will one do, will he have to knock the door of the court and seek security or is any other remedy is available ..?? please, it is urgently required..!1
Sucheta Dalal
Replied to mansi agnihotri comment 5 years ago
Mansi, you have posted a comment on a 5 yeare old report. Since you are facing a threat, please connect with RTI activists who will help guide you. I suggest you send an email to [email protected] we can help connect you with several leading RTI activists who can guide you on the next course of action.
mansi agnihotri
Replied to Sucheta Dalal comment 5 years ago
hey thank you so much Sucheta. we are filing a complaint about threat can you please tell me whether I can file the complaint to CIC as well under section 18
Gaurang Damani
1 decade ago
Surely RTI Act is one of the most important means available to an activist to gather information.

The Act gets misused a lot, by professional black-mailers. There should be a rule wherein, citizens have to prove public interest in some way, while making an RTI application.

P M Ravindran
Replied to Gaurang Damani comment 1 decade ago
This is one of the most ridiculous comments that has been posted ever. Firstly, this is one Act which can NEVER be misused by the public. The very purpose of the Act, amoung other things, is 'to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed'. The only people who can really misuse this Act are the information commissioners. Every case where the available information has not been provided within the time frame specified and where the IC has failed to impose the mandatory penalty has to be seen as a case of corruption where in the IC has taken the full/part penalty amount as bribe from the delinquent PIO and the FAA.

And just for the records, the failed PM. MMS, made a sweeping statement that the Act is being misused by the public seeking personal information of public servants and on an application under the RTI Act, the Central Information Commission confessed that they did not have any record of any such application or appeal!
1 decade ago
My gut feeling is that as long as people appointed to the post of ICs are products of the run of the mill type Govt. offices or from Judiciary no law including RTI Act can be safe in this country as of today. The Govt is happy to post such favourites for post-retiment benefits to them keeping an eye on the resultant benefits for themselves and the current employees. To keep a public image they will post a few from the 'Public who are basically relatives of such favourites. The dates fixed by the ICs for the hearing is now a year or two after receipt of the Appeal. It will be longer with the passing of each day. What benefits the India Janta can get from such slow moving apparatus? We already feel disenchanted with Judiciary. After the appointment of people from Judiciary as per orders of the SC where shall we and the RTI Act be?
P M Ravindran
1 decade ago
I can vouch, on the strength of all the orders I have on various 2nd appeals, that the information commissioners have really murdered this one and only pro-democracy, pro-citizen law of the land. The courts have also joined these traitors in murdering this law. (Just look at the judges' assets case and the then CJI K G Balakrishnan's stand. And instead of throwing him out on grounds of incompetence or treason he has been given another 5 years to live a life of gay abandon at the tax payers' cost!)

For my experience with Shailesh Gandhi, the only RTI activist who got the opportunity to enforce the law, please read my blog 'RTI Act-Shailesh Gandhi and Schopenhauer's Law of Entropy' at
Vinita Deshmukh
Replied to P M Ravindran comment 1 decade ago
Instead of getting into the pettiness and bickering of some individual case, one expects activists and citizens to see the larger picture for the benefit of keeping the RTI Act healthy and alive. Unarguably, the overall performance of Mr Shailesh Gandhi has been exemplary. He has used innovative methods to speed up disposal of cases.Many of his orders have been beneficial to the common man. His series in Moneylife will give an idea of his performance. I too have written a few stories based on his orders which may be checked in this website. He also immediately gave copies of the orders after the second appeal hearing. I stand by his sincerity, devotion and the passion for transparency and citizen-oriented governance. We must all support him otherwise we will continue to have ministers' favourites ruling the roost as information commissioners which would be the true death of RTI. I agree with Sucheta - Wake up people!
P M Ravindran
Replied to Vinita Deshmukh comment 1 decade ago
@ Ms Vinita Deshmukh and Ms Sucheta Dalal: I too have kept a few orders of Mr Shailesh Gandhi as examples of real good orders. off hand I can recollect the one he delivered on interpretation of Sec 6(3) and the use of singular for other public authorities used there. In fact I even attended the National Convention on RTI organised by the CIC in New Delhi in Oct 2011 on an invitation provided to me at the behest of Shailesh Gandhi. But then came this decision of his in my 2nd appeal on the information sought from the CIC itself on the status of my four 2nd appeals submitted to them earlier! It is only when you consider the simplicity of the application itself and the arbitrariness of the order of SG that you realise the folly of this activist turned information commissioner. I can still agree he was the best amoung all the ICs we have (had) so far but still a far cry from one whose performance can be said to be even satisfactory.
Sucheta Dalal
Replied to P M Ravindran comment 1 decade ago
Well I guess this is the price that all activists have to pay for their self-less activism.

We can vouch for the fact that Shailesh Gandhi works tirelessly and selflessly for the cause. He is human and dont forget, that he was supremely prolific.

Unfortunately, many activists decided that since he was an activist, they owned him. Many would behave as if they did not bother with the respect due to him and his post, because they saw him as "one of them".
Many activists write and encourage people to write LOOOONG applications asking needless queries and to go on fishing expeditions. These are impossible to handle at the CIC level.
Some have used their activism to abuse PIOs during hearings and call them corrupt ... they forget that the PIO is only doing a job.

I am not going into what Mr Ravindran has faced, but we have requested him often enough to desist.

Will any of these people -- hand on their heart -- say that Shailesh Gandhi's stint in the CIC did not add immense value and credibility to the Commission's work?

Unfortunately, when we activists insist on an intemperate voice and narrow view that we play into the government's hands and we will only ensure that no other activist gets appointed to the top job.

We can all then whine and lament the destruction of the ONLY empowering legislation we have had in India.

Wake up people!
Milan Maheshwari
1 decade ago
all Indians are cowards!! no self respect, we will choose to suffer but never fight back.For once come together and fight these white collar criminals. "Restore Your Self Respect"
Replied to Milan Maheshwari comment 1 decade ago
we have no self respect? ......... That's why why we imported a lady from Italy to teach us the Italian lessons of self respect.
1 decade ago
Most of the Information Commissioners are white elephants.
Dr Pankaj Gupta
1 decade ago
Most of the information commissioners appointed do not do justice to their post as they are mostly retired chief secty or other important bureaucrats. unless sensitized RTI activists become IC, this is bound to occur; and also state Govt never wants pro active ICs . so they appoint lenient or subdued person at the post. It suits them to fulfill the obligation this way..
Vaibhav Dhoka
1 decade ago
We as Indians become used to,to any law regulation.Here laws are for timids. There is no accountability for beauracrats. After all most of Information Commissioners come from beauracracy they have brethren hood attitude which prohibits them to levy penalty.The destiny of excellent act RTI act is unpredictable if one goes by above findings and SC judgement(due for review)that Information Commissioners should have judicial background.It is killing of an NOBLE act.
1 decade ago
My friend filed an appeal before the Chief Information Commissioner, Kerala on 26.11.2011. He sent a reminder on 1.3.2012. But, till date he has no information whatsoever from the commissionerate. He is not even informed about the registration of the Complaint or the file number. He is now planning to file an RTI to know the status of his appeal from the commissionerate!

This is how our office of the information commissioner works.
Milan Maheshwari
Replied to Dev comment 1 decade ago
that is why i am saying every state should have single body under which complaints and follow up should happen.Individuals will get tired or will be unable to follow up forever.
Milan Maheshwari
1 decade ago
Government knows very well the psychology of Indians, so sooner or later this will also meet the fate of "Lokpal". Impossible to unite Indians!!
Dr Pankaj Gupta
Replied to Milan Maheshwari comment 1 decade ago
Said so true !!
Milan Maheshwari
1 decade ago
one should create a body which takes up all the complaints and files it, deals with it and publishes it.
1 decade ago
I have experiences with Jharkhand State Information Commission which , at present , has only one IC who is Chief. They do not penalise even after repeated failures and ignoring the Order/ decisions. CIC also do not penalise. Simply asking PIOs and 1st Appellate Authorities to furnish the information is weakening the Act and its implementation. The reason also is that slowly it is becoming a judiciary type of organisation which is not known for its efficient functioning. I agree that PIOs and 1st AAs must be penalised.And the punishment should be exemplary.
Anand N Shama
1 decade ago
Vinita ji
The problem is two fold ... All the above is absolutely true.
Problem Number 1: (To Summarize, what you, so eloquently explained above)
Information Commissioners don't bother to take action and Govt. officers making this RTI into a farce.
Problem Number 2 : Even if information is provided, a scam is exposed and media publishes, there is no hope of any real action. Nobody gets punished for corruption or incompetency. The conviction rate is "almost" nil.

Mere exposure of crime does not cut it anymore, unless the "criminals" are punished. My experience is .. the younger generation is slowly not believing in RTI anymore. They feel that even if a "wrongdoing" is exposed, its of no use. The maximum that can happen is get it published in some newspaper or show it on some local TV (??)
This will result in lesser number of future young RTI activists, which will eventually lead to the whole movement to die a painful slow death :-(
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