National Herald: New Delhi: Saturday, March 18, 2017.
The whole idea of bringing in the landmark legislation, the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005, was to make the government transparent and accountable. However, since the time the law was implemented, governments have been rejecting citizens’ queries by creating a mysterious “others” category that isn’t mentioned in the RTI Act. Rejections under this head seems to have reached a new high in 2015-16, as per the data in the annual report of the Central Information Commission (CIC) released on Friday.
The CIC’s latest annual report for 2015-16 shows that the Centre had received a record 9.76 lakh RTI applications, of which 6.62% of the RTI applications processed were rejected. Of the rejected applications, a whopping 43% RTI applications were not for reasons that were permitted under the RTI Act. In 2014-15, the percentage of rejection under the “others” category, was lower at 37%.
“It’s appalling that the highest proportion of RTI applications that were rejected do not come under the permissible exemptions under the RTI Act. They come under the mysterious category of ‘others’,” says Venkatesh Nayak, RTI Activist and Programme Coordinator of the Access to Information Programme of the NGO, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “This category is a contradiction of the RTI Act,” he says.
“In fact, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is one of the registered public authorities (PAs) that employed this device (“others” category) very frequently,” says Nayak. In 2015-16, the PMO reported a rejection rate of 20.1% of the RTIs received, which was a drop from 22.1% in 2014-15. However, only 7 RTI applications were rejected by the PMO invoking Section 8.
A whopping 2,227 RTIs that were rejected by the PMO were in the “others” category. The only solace was that the rejections in this category were much higher at 2,781 in 2014-15. “This declining but nevertheless worrisome trend requires an in-depth study,” says Nayak. Hasn’t there been a clarification by the government or the CIC on what the “others” category represented? Not yet. “PM Narendra Modi had said in 2015 that the various categories of RTI applications should be studied. Clarity on this issue is urgently needed,” he added.
In layman’s parlance, what this means is that not every information can be given out to the public such as, say, information that could affect the security of the country. Therefore, there are safeguards built into the Act. These are specified in Sections 8, 9, 11 and 24 of the RTI Act that exempt the disclosure of information which affects the sovereignty of India; breach of Parliament/ state legislature; regarding intelligence and security organisations; information that could be an infringement of copyright etc.
When any citizen seeks some information, if a public authority (PA) cannot disclose the sought information, then it must specify as to under which category of the RTI Act the information was being denied.
The CIC report says that 47% of the total rejected RTIs were under various clauses in Section 8 of the RTI Act; 1% of the RTIs were rejected under Section 9 (private copyright) and 7% of the RTI were rejected by the 26 security and intelligence organisations partially excluded under Section 24 of the RTI Act.
The other important highlights of the report:
· The 9.76 lakh RTI applications received by the registered public authorities (PAs) in 2015-16 was 2.21 lakh or 22.67% more than the previous year.
· The PAs rejected 6.62% of the RTI applications processed during 2015-16, when compared to 8.39% in 2014-15.
· The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has not reported its RTI statistics despite registering with the CIC. Only 33% of the public authorities from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways reported their RTI statistics to the CIC. However, compliance has been between 60-100% in a large number of ministries and departments that have registered with the CIC.
· The CIC reports that it imposed penalties to the tune of ₹10.52 lakh out of which ₹9.41 lakh was paid up by the PIOs. Penalties worth ₹1.25 lakh imposed in various cases have been stayed by various High Courts.