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RTI First Appeals are Increasing So is Public Resentment

Is India's transparency law failing its citizens? Here is why one of the world's best transparency laws is failing to make the government accountable.

By Bhaswati Sengupta
New Update

publive-image Right To Information | Representative Image | Photo Courtesy: Special Arrangement

“I had filed nearly ten Right to Information (RTI) applications to various government offices, and I did not get any response last year, because of which I had to go for the first appeal. For instance, I applied with the Central Information Commission to find out whether they had communicated a decision in one of my appeal cases from September 2021 to the Nehru Memorial Museum Library, and there was no response for 30 days. When I called the PIO, he apologised and told me that he had a series of tragedies in his family and was on leave and would respond soon. Even that response did not come through. Then I filed a first appeal. Within ten days, the PIO was supposed to give me a response as per the appellate authority’s order, but those days are also over, and I am still waiting for a reply,” says Venkatesh Nayak, an RTI activist.

Nikhil Dey, an RTI activist and Co-convener of National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) speaks to The Probe’s Bhaswati Sengupta

Nayak is the Director at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and has trained more than 6000 government officers and over 600 public sector executives for implementing the Right to Information (RTI) Act in India. The Central Information Commission’s 2021-22 Annual Report shows that there has been a rise in the number of first appeals related to Right to Information applications which indicates that the people’s dissatisfaction with the government’s RTI replies is at its highest ever.

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Nayak states that the RTI applicants today don’t seem to be satisfied with the quality or the quantity of the information received. “Why would someone file an RTI appeal? If people are satisfied with the information they are getting from the government, then they will not file an appeal. But if they are not satisfied with the decision of the Public Information Officer (PIO), then they file appeals. They also file appeals when they don’t get a response to their application. If the number of appeals filed is almost three times the number of rejections, it obviously means that for every single RTI that was rejected, there were at least three people who were not happy out of which at least one was the person whose RTI was rejected and two other people who were not happy with the response they got. The figures indicate that the appeals are three times higher than the number of rejections.”

Even 18 years after the RTI Act was passed, India’s transparency law still needs proper implementation. In 2021-22, the number of first appeals submitted by RTI applicants across public authorities stood at an all-time high of 1.62 lakhs. According to government data, during the same period, first appellate authorities could dispose of only 1.05 lakh first appeals by the end of March 2022, which shows that more than a third of the first appeals submitted in 2021-22 remained undecided at the end of the year.

“I have had many bad experiences while filing RTIs. The Delhi government does not give appropriate responses. The New Delhi Municipal Council also doesn’t give correct responses. Sometimes they don’t respond itself, and in a few instances, when they respond, they give us the wrong information. They keep forwarding the applications to unnecessary departments to obfuscate and purposefully hide the information,” says Subhash Chandra Agarwal, an RTI activist. Agarwal holds the Guinness World Record for writing the most published letters to newspaper editors and has used the Right to Information Act to combat corruption in India. It was due to Agarwal’s relentless efforts that the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) brought the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) under the RTI purview. The High Court of Delhi later upheld the decision in 2010, and the Supreme Court of India in 2019. 

“In the case related to the salary of Imams, we saw how the Chief Information Commission came down heavily on the Delhi government and directed the Delhi Waqf Board to pay me compensation for the loss of time and resources in chasing the response to my RTI application. The minority division in the government did not give information even after the CIC order in the case. To date, I have not received the information. I have filed a non-compliance case with the CIC in the matter, and the case will be heard by the CIC soon,” adds Agarwal.

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In response to Agarwal’s RTI, the CIC had said that the Supreme Court’s 1993 order to pay remuneration to imams of mosques violated the constitution. Through his RTI application, Agarwal sought salary details to Imams from the Delhi government and the Delhi Waqf Board. “When I sent the RTI to the New Delhi Municipal Council seeking details of The Travancore House, asking whose property it was, they kept dilly-dallying and did not give me the information. They just give you a copy-paste reply,” states Agarwal.

Nayak says that as far as the RTI Act is concerned, it does not need amendment but implementation. “It is such a sorry state of affairs. Instead of getting 55,000 first appeals, they are getting 1,60,000 first appeals. This also means that the workload has also increased. One-third of the appeals filed last year remained pending at the end of the year. If the PIOs had been much more careful and diligent in their replies, then the satisfaction level of the public would have been higher. Unfortunately, we don’t have a mechanism in place to review the performance of the PIO or the appellate authority, which is why year after year, even in the Central Information Commission, more second appeals are being filed. We don’t need any amendments to the Act now. All energies must be focused on proper implementation of the Act”.

The Probe spoke to the former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Shailesh Gandhi, who agrees that implementation is the key to making RTI more efficient. “The Indian RTI Act is one of the best transparency laws in the world, but we have miserably failed when it comes to implementation. Overall the RTI response from government departments has been deteriorating, and the waiting period is getting longer and longer. The Commission must ensure that these appeals are disposed of within a rigid time frame, and the Commission must take a more pro-transparency stand.”

According to RTI activist Nikhil Dey, India’s poor state of RTI reflects the ruling dispensation’s antipathy towards transparent governance. “The rise in the number of first appeals is not very good because RTI ideally works best when the government proactively discloses information where the people don’t have to keep filing first appeals. RTIs are being treated in a very casual manner by the PIOs. They feel it is okay if they don’t answer the questions and will enjoy impunity. Right from the Prime Minister’s office downwards, there has been a lack of seriousness regarding RTI. We are getting these signals from the political establishment and the ruling party that transparency doesn’t matter and people don’t have the right to know.”