With lakhs of appeals pending, RTI Act needs urgent reforms
Around the time that the landmark Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 marked the completion of the 13th year of its enactment, the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) of India wrote to the Delhi government that the crucial piece of legislation, which was introduced to ensure transparency in governance, has been reduced to a mere “lame duck”, in Delhi.
RTI Act needs urgent reforms | RTI expert Subhash Chandra Agarwal to The Probe
This is not just the case in the national capital. A report released by a voluntary organisation Satark Nagrik Sanghatan (SNS), states that over three lakh complaints and appeals have been pending on June 20, 2022, across 26 information commissions in India, including the Central Information Commission (CIC).
The RTI Act came into play, during the rule of the erstwhile Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, on the occasion of Vijaya Dashami on October 12, 2005 with retired bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah, a 1968-batch IAS officer belonging to the Jammu & Kashmir cadre, as the first CIC of the country. However, in recent years, the appointment of bureaucrats to head state-level information commissions has allegedly resulted in spawning a culture of “secrecy” in providing information to applicants as against the Act’s primary objective of ensuring “transparency” in governance.
“A bureaucrat who has spent his entire career in a culture of secrecy, where government information is regularly withheld from the general public, cannot be expected to undergo a change of heart overnight to adopt a culture of transparency after being asked to head a state’s information commission,” adds Thakur.
In July 2019, soon after being elected to power for a second time in a row, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi amended the Act to end the parity enjoyed by the CIC and Information Commissioners of the states with the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, respectively, on their service terms and conditions and tenure. Rules were also formulated for reducing the service tenures of the commissioners from five years to a maximum period of three years and reducing their salaries, a move widely criticised by activists at the time as an attempt to curtail the independence of officers appointed under the Act.
Procedural simplicity, ease of filing applications, a uniform application fee and complete adherence to basic guidelines contained in the principal Act are some areas that need work, say RTI activists. “There should be one nation–one rule regarding RTI application fees. If a maximum sum of Rs 50 is pegged as uniform RTI application fees across the country inclusive of charges for providing the first 20 copied pages, the Act will be prevented from misuse,” adds Agarwal.
In March 2018, the Supreme Court issued an order capping RTI fees at a maximum of Rs 50 in a petition filed by the NGO Common Cause, ending disparities across various state governments in charging money from applicants in lieu of providing information. As per Sections 27 and 28 of the Act, state governments are free to draft their own rules pertaining to the RTI, including the fixing of and mode of payment of application fees.
The RTI Act 2005, at the time of its enactment, had also made it mandatory for all government departments, through Section 4, to publish all their relevant information in the public domain. The maximum time period that had been set upon the government departments to bring about this transparency was 120 days.
Many state governments have eased the process of information seeking through the RTI Act by enabling online filling up of applications. But activists have called out certain state governments, like Odisha, which make it mandatory to file duplicate applications through post even after the online process. The limit of attaching a maximum of 20 pages of supporting documents, wherever required in the process of filing applications, as is being followed by certain other state governments, has also been flagged as an issue that needs rectification.
Nearly 17 years have passed since the passing of the RTI Act. However, over time, the Act is bogged by several bottlenecks that need immediate redressal. The right to information is a fundamental right of every citizen, but many state government departments continue to not part with information on frivolous grounds. This will change only when the RTI Act is amended to make the right to information more accessible to the common man.
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