Thanks to the inordinate pendency of second appeals and complaints of right to information (RTI) applicants, which are not heard by information commissioners for over one or even two years after filing them, the trend of applicants remaining absent on the day of the hearing is becoming common.
If you go through the central information commission (CIC) decisions on the www.cic.gov.in
portal of the last few months, you will find this sentence - ‘The Appellant remained absent during the hearing despite prior intimation’
- quite often in the CIC order. In most of these cases, the hearings occur in 2023 when the RTI applicant has filed a second appeal in 2021. This time gap sometimes makes the information irrelevant for the RTI applicant or sometimes he loses interest in following up on his case.
The other deterrent is the expenditure that the RTI applicant has to bear for travel to the information commissioner’s offices. Although video conferencing has become the accepted norm, those in villages have to travel to nearby towns for it. In sharp contrast, the public information officers (PIOs) who appear for the second appeal hearing are compensated by the government for their travel and, if required, accommodation.
For example, Rahul Singh, information commissioner, Rewa division of Madhya Pradesh, says that barely 1% to 2% of RTI applicants are physically present for second appeal hearings.
According to him, “Firstly, due to huge pendency, the RTI applicants lose hope by the time their hearing date for the second appeal comes. Secondly, while they pay Rs10 for seeking information, many of them have to travel even 500km for the second hearing in my jurisdiction of the Rewa division. Many of my RTI applicants are based out of rural areas and have to travel to their tehsil town even if they have to attend it through video conference.”
Mr Singh, therefore, has switched over to a second appeal hearing through the mobile phone. He says, “This has brought about wonderful results. In my division, about 98% of applicants are available on phone and so it has become the best solution. I also encourage them to send me their arguments on WhatsApp too. This has salvaged the otherwise grim situation of where, against Rs10 for information, people here would have had to cut a hole in their pockets to finally get it.” Nevertheless, he faces problems with applicants as well as central PIOs (CPIOs) many a time not picking up their phones.
Rahul Pandey, an information commissioner of Nagpur, states, “It has become routine for appellants to remain absent. However, as per the RTI Act, responsibility rests on the information commissioner to give justice to the RTI applicant for all he wants is information that is within the framework of this sunshine law. Thus, the state information commissioner (SIC) even otherwise has to assume the role of enforcer and seek accountability from the PIO or first appellate authority (FAA) and it is they who have to mandatorily be present as they have to implement the order; and the principle of natural justice requires that they must be heard before any penalty is imposed.”
However, Mr Pandey acknowledges many enthusiastic RTI applicants who travel several hundred kilometres for the second hearing. He also uses the hybrid system of video conferencing by the applicant and the physical presence of PIOs.
Shailesh Gandhi, former CIC and RTI activist, lambasting the very nature of inordinate delays for second appeals, states that “The RTI applicant takes recourse to the second appeal, when the public information officer (PIO) and the FAA fail to provide him with the information when already 75 days have passed. When the second appeal is not heard and disposed of for an unreasonable period and in fact, some for even more than a year, then this entire time-bound scheme of the Act is abruptly lost in the wilderness and makes it go totally adrift resulting in a grave miscarriage of justice and undermines the faith of the people of India in the participatory democracy which requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information.”
He, along with other RTI activists, has demanded a hearing within 45 days.
So, what is the ultimate solution? Of course, the time and again reminder that suo motu disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act, wherein every public authority uploads information from time to time, will save the harassment of going through written RTI applications after which the information at the doors of the PIOs, FAAs and information commissioners is kept out of the common man’s reach.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.)