In 15 Years Over 2.25 Lakh RTI Second Appeals Pending, Thanks to Laggard Information Commissioners and Their Appointments
The RTI Act 2005, which celebrates its 15th birth anniversary today, does not have much to sing and dance about, as the top-of-the-chart officers, that is information commissioners has let down this one of strongest transparency laws in the world, thanks to the sluggishness in the performance (or the absence of it) of information commissioners across the country and deliberate negligence of governments in the centre and states in filling up vacancies.
In what can be termed as a rude joke to the RTI Act, which is the only citizen-friendly law that has empowered him to demand and procure information from most of the government departments, the backlog of second appeals of 20 information commissions across the country stands at a whopping 2,21,568 as of July 2020. And on a more serious note, only 2.2% of the public information officers (PIOs) have been penalised, thus letting most of them scot free!!
These revelations are a part of the `Key findings of the "Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2020’ carried out by Delhi based Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS). It has compiled a report on the performance of the 29 ICs across various states.
The report observes that 15 years after the implementation of the RTI Act, "the functioning of information commissions is a major bottleneck in the effective implementation of the RTI law.’’ The reasons are as follows:
• One of the primary reasons for the backlog is the failure of Central and state governments to take timely action to appoint ICs to the central information commission and state information commissions, respectively.
• Large backlog of appeals and complaints in many commissions across the country has resulted in inordinate delays in disposal of cases, which render the law ineffective.
• Performance of ICs, in terms of exercising their powers to ensure proper implementation of the law, has been a cause of great concern to the RTI community. Commissions have been found to be extremely reluctant to impose penalties on erring officials for violations of the law.
The findings of the report are as follows:
• Nine out of 29 (31%) information commissions are currently headless, i.e., functioning without a chief. These include the CIC and the SICs of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Goa, Manipur, Telangana, Jharkhand, Tripura and Nagaland.
• 2 SICs—Jharkhand and Tripura—are completely defunct as no new commissioners have been appointed upon the incumbents demitting office.
• About 1,78,749 appeals and complaints were registered between 1 April 2019 and 31 July 2020 and nearly two lakh cases (1,92,872) were disposed.
• The number of appeals and complaints pending on 31 July 2020 in the 20 information commissions, from which data was obtained, stood at 2,21,568. The backlog has been steadily increasing.
• The report calculates the estimated time each commission would need to dispose a new appeal/complaint. Odisha SIC would take 7 years and 8 months to dispose a matter. In Jharkhand SIC, it would take 4 years and 1 month, while in Maharashtra, CIC, Rajasthan and Nagaland it would take 2 years or more. The assessment shows that nine commissions would take more than a year to dispose of a matter.
• Penalty was imposed in just 2.2% of the cases disposed by information commissions.
The report is primarily based on an analysis of information accessed under the RTI Act, from 29 information commissions across India. A total of 159 RTI applications were filed with state information commissions (SIC) and the central information commission (CIC).
The information sought included:
• Number of commissioners serving in each commission for the period April 2019 to July 2020 and their backgrounds;
• The number of appeals and complaints registered, disposed, returned by each IC for the period April 2019 to July 2020;
• Number of appeals and complaints pending before each IC on 31 July 2020;
• The quantum of penalties imposed by each IC, and the amount recovered, for the period April 2019 to July 2020;
• The quantum of compensation awarded by each IC, for the period April 2019 to July 2020;
• Number of cases in which disciplinary action was recommended by each IC;
States Anjali Bharadwaj, one of the members of SNS, “This initiative is part of an effort to undertake ongoing monitoring of the performance of information commissions across the country with the objective of improving the functioning of commissions and strengthening the RTI regime.”
Highlighting the importance of the role of information commissioners of the RTI Act, the Report states that, “the commissions have wide-ranging powers including the power to require public authorities to provide access to information, appoint public information officers (PIOs), publish certain categories of information and make changes to practices of information maintenance.
“The commissions have the power to order an inquiry if there are reasonable grounds for one, and also have the powers of a civil court for enforcing attendance of persons, discovery of documents, receiving evidence or affidavits, issuing summons for examination of witnesses or documents.
“Section 19(8)(b) of the RTI Act empowers information commissions to “require the public authority to compensate the complainant for any loss or other detriment suffered.”
“Further, under section 19(8) and section 20 of the RTI Act, information commissions are given powers to impose penalties on erring officials, while under Section 20(2), commissions are empowered to recommend disciplinary action against a PIO for 'persistent' violation of one or more provisions of the 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”.