As we enter the 17th year of the implementation of the RTI Act, there is more to be aggrieved about than to celebrate, as pendencies of second appeals and complaints with the Central and state information commissions continue to be alarming; with vacancies, making the task more challenging.
Consider this: As of June 2022, 314,323 appeals and complaints were pending in the 26 information commissions. Out of these, Maharashtra is at the top, earning the dubious distinction of nearly 100K pendencies—99,722 to be precise; followed by Uttar Pradesh with 44,482, Karnataka with 30,358 and the central information commission (CIC) with 26,724!
As for vacancies of posts of information commissioners, the two information commissions of Jharkhand and Tripura are completely defunct as it has been more than a year since no new commissioners have been appointed after the incumbents demitting office. Four information commissions, which have no state chief information commissioners (SCIS), comprise Manipur, Telangana, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
These details that are available in the just released `Key findings of the Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2021-22’ by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) are a matter of grave concern.
As per the analysis, the West Bengal SIC would take a mindboggling 24 years and 3 months to dispose a matter! The report states: “A matter filed on 1 July 2022 would be disposed in the year 2046 at the current monthly rate of disposal!”
The researchers say they have come to this conclusion by using data of the backlog of cases in WB’s information commissions and their monthly rate of disposal, and the time it would take for an appeal/ complaint filed with an IC to be disposed. This was then computed.
In Odisha and Maharashtra SICs, estimated time for disposal is more than five years and in Bihar, more than two years.
States Anjali Bharadwaj, member of the SNS, “Unless this concerning trend is arrested, the very purpose of the RTI Act i.e. time-bound access to information, stands to be defeated. The long delays in disposal of cases can be attributed largely to two factors: vacancies in commissions and tardy rate of disposal by commissioners. While some commissions have fixed annual norms for disposal for themselves (the CIC has set a norm of 3,200 cases per commissioner annually), most information commissions have not adopted any norms regarding the number of cases a commissioner should deal with in a year.”
That vacancies play a notorious role in delayed disposals is manifested in West Bengal where the SIC was functioning with just one commissioner for about three months between June and September 2022 and is currently functioning with only two. In terms of disposal, SIC disposed only 426 cases between 1 July 2021 and 30 June 2022 – an average of less than 36 cases a month!
Under the RTI law, information commissions are the final appellate authority and are mandated to safeguard and facilitate people’s fundamental right to information. The report on the performance of information commissions across the country is based on information accessed under the RTI Act.
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; number of pending cases; estimated waiting time for the disposal of an appeal/complaint filed in each commission; frequency of violations penalised by commissions and; transparency in their working.
Section 25 of the RTI Act obligates each commission to prepare a report on the implementation of the provisions of this Act every year which is to be laid before Parliament or the state legislature. The report states that 20 out of 29 ICs (69%) have not published their annual report for 2020-21.
In February 2019, the Supreme Court, in its judgment on a PIL regarding non-appointment of information commissioners, ruled that the proper functioning of commissions with adequate number of commissioners is vital for effective implementation of the RTI Act. The Court held that since the law stipulates that information commissions should consist of a chief and up to 10 commissioners ‘as may be deemed necessary’, the number of commissioners required should be determined on the basis of the workload. In fact, the judgement emphasised that if commissions do not function with adequate number of commissioners, it would negate the very purpose of enacting the RTI law.
(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”.)