The Sunday Guardian: New Delhi: Sunday, April 23, 2017.
The Right to Information Act (RTI), which was brought in to ensure transparency in the functioning of various government departments both at the Centre and state levels, does not seem to be working efficiently, as more and more RTIs are now being rejected under the excuse of national security and many are being allowed to lapse so that the applicant is forced to personally visit the Central Information Commission (CIC) for hearing, according to several RTI activists.
“It is surprising that a large number of RTI applications have been rejected under the “Others” category that does not even exist in the RTI Act. This is perhaps a tool that the Public Authorities have adopted to reject information that they do not wish to bring out in the public domain,” Venkatesh Nayak, an RTI activist and programme coordinator of the Access to Information Programme of the NGO Commonwealth Human Right Initiative told The Sunday Guardian.
Nayak also raised questions on the inordinate delays in providing information to RTI applicants. “It has become a common practice for the Public Authorities not to provide replies on RTI applications according to the prescribed deadline of 30 days. This poses the serious question about compliance with the RTI Act by the Public Authorities and I believe they sit on RTI applications under the garb of long pendency of applications. They know they would be able to get away with it. At times, Public Information Officers also deliberately delay RTI replies, waiting for the applicant to make appeals to the commission following which they start acting,” Nayak said.
Several journalists who have been filing regular RTIs have also complained about the inordinate delays in providing replies to their RTI applications. Not just this, some have also said that their first appeals have also been pending for months.
A journalist, who did not wish to be named and specifically files RTI applications, said, “A government official told me that they do not reply to many RTIs knowingly so that people lose interest in them. The official said that they know that very few will appeal before the CIC to pursue their RTIs.”
The CIC’s annual report for 2015-2016 also projects a gloomy picture about the disposal of RTI applications by various government departments. A whopping 11.65 lakh RTI applications are pending with the various Public Authorities for disposal as on 2016-end, while over 64,000 RTI applications have been rejected by the various Public Authorities last year alone, according to the CIC’s annual report published recently.
The CIC’s report further says that 47% of the RTI applications rejected was under Section 8(1), which exempts from disclosure such information which affects the sovereignty and integrity of the country and its security and strategic, scientific or economic interest, commercial confidence, trade secrets, or intellectual property. Of the RTI applications, 1% was rejected under Section 9 (Private copyright), 2% under Section 9 (Third party information) and Section 24 (Intelligence and Security Organisations) was invoked to reject 7% of the RTIs. Surprisingly, 43% of the applications were rejected under the “Others” category, which does not find a mention in the RTI Act.
Raising questions about the poor compliance with the RTI Act, Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner, said, “Non compliance of the 30-day window for providing information is an acute problem that has developed with the Public Information Officers and this has been increasing because the penalty provision of the Act is not being implemented strictly by the Commission. The CIC should ensure that the RTI provisions be implemented in their true spirit and applications be disposed of quickly, thus reducing the pendency and the huge backlog.”
Gandhi also raised concern about the “gross misinterpretation” of certain provisions of the RTI Act, which, according to him, is diluting the Act. “India ranks really low in terms of implementation of the RTI Act compared to other countries. The Public Authorities have also been misinterpreting several provisions of the Act, particularly the exempting provisions. Such misinterpretations also lead to ‘amending’ the law without actually being legally amended, leading to its dilution,” Gandhi said.
The Department of Personnel and Training’s “Withdrawal/Abatement of appeal” clause under Draft RTI rules 2017, has also drawn flak from RTI activists.
The “Withdrawal/Abatement of appeal” clause says that the proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant and also that the commission may allow the appellant to withdraw an application made before the commission if the appellant wishes to.
Commenting on this, Shailesh Gandhi said that the death provision included in the Draft rules is “flawed”. “The information does not belong to a particular person, it belongs to the public and it seems that the Draft Rules are not well thought out. Even after the death of the applicant, the information sought should be put out in public domain, irrespective of the cause of death of the applicant.”
Venkatesh Nayak said that this provision could be misused by notorious elements to either pressurise the applicant to withdraw the application or threaten him/her with death.