In this 16th year of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, the one thing that continues to cripple the Act’s efficacy is the pathetic performance of information commissioners (ICs), reflected in the backlog of second appeals and complaints piled up across the country. As of now, a whopping 2.56 lakh appeals and complaints are pending in the 26 information commissions. This is a serious matter as information commissions set up at the Central and state level are the final appellate authority and are mandated to safeguard and facilitate people’s fundamental right to information.
This distressing revelation of information has been compiled in the ‘Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2021’. The research has been conducted by Satark Nagrik Sanghatan, a citizens’ group working for transparency. The report primarily analyses information accessed under the RTI Act from 29 information commissions across India. To procure this information, a total of 156 RTI applications were filed with state and Central information commissions. In addition, information has also been sourced from the websites and annual reports of information commissions.
The report examines the performance of all 29 commissions in India in terms of the number of appeals and complaints registered and disposed by them, the number of pending cases, estimated waiting time for the disposal of an appeal or complaint filed in each commission, frequency of violations penalised by commissions and transparency in their working. The pendency in the information commissions varies in nature.
For example, Jharkhand, Tripura and Meghalaya’s state information commissions are defunct as no new commissioners have been appointed upon the incumbent demitting office. Three other states, Nagaland, Manipur and Telangana, function without a state chief information commissioner (SCIC).
The report analysed the time it would take for an appeal or complaint to be disposed using the average monthly disposal rate and the pendency in commissions. As per the assessment, the Odisha SIC would take six years and eight months to dispose a matter.
The report elaborates the uselessness of the second appeal when it states that: “a matter filed on 1 July 2021 would be disposed in the year 2028 at the current monthly rate of disposal! Goa SIC would take five years and 11 months, in Kerala four years and 10 months and West Bengal four years and seven months. The estimated time required for disposal of an appeal or complaint in the Central Information Commission (CIC) is one year and 11 months, and for the Maharashtra IC, it was three years and six months. The assessment shows that 13 commissions would take one year or more to dispose of a matter.”
The SIC of Maharashtra registered the highest number of appeals and complaints (41,978) followed by Uttar Pradesh (19,781) and CIC (18,298).
The UP SIC disposed the highest number of cases (19,706), closely followed by Maharashtra (19,307) and the CIC at 17,649. The SIC of Nagaland did not dispose a single case during the period under review, despite pending appeals or complaints.
As per this report card, the information commissions have imposed penalties in a tiny fraction of the cases in which penalty was imposable. “In fact, commissions appear to be reluctant even to ask the public information officers (PIOs) to give their justification for not complying with the law,” states the report.
From 1 August 2020 to 30 June 2021, a total of 11,742 show-cause notices were issued to PIOs under the penalty clause of the Act, by the 16 commissions, which provided relevant information.
In terms of penalty imposition, of the 21 commissions which provided relevant information, a penalty was imposed in a total of 1,988 cases which amounted to Rs2.48 crore. In terms of the quantum of penalty imposed, Haryana was the leader at Rs95.86 lakh, followed by Madhya Pradesh (Rs57.16 lakh) and Odisha (Rs25.98 lakh). Interestingly, while the SIC of Gujarat issued the maximum number of show-cause notices (6,929), the penalty was imposed in only 80 cases.
As for the statutory obligation of the CICs and SICs of publishing annual reports, 21 out of 29 information commissions (72%) have not published their annual report for 2019-20. Only the CIC and SICs of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Mizoram, Nagaland and Uttar Pradesh have published their annual report for 2020 and made it available on their websites.
RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj, who was a part of this research, says, “The need to scrutinise the functioning of information commissions now is perhaps greater than ever before, given the unprecedented crisis gripping the nation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An assessment of the functioning of the transparency watchdogs revealed that 21 out of 29 commissions in the country did not hold a single hearing during the first three stages of the national lockdown imposed in 2020. While the central information commission and some state commissions used audio and video conferencing to hear and dispose of cases, most commissions did not make provision for hearing even urgent matters.”
By the way, in its 2019 assessment, as of 31 March 2019, a total of 218,000 appeals or complaints were pending in the 26 information commissions from which data was obtained. This shows that the number of second appeals or complaints at the information commission only keeps rising!
(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”.)