Sunday, July 09, 2017

Is the RTI law in danger of losing its might?

Hindustan Times: National: Sunday, July 09, 2017.
In 2015, activist Lokesh Batra filed a Right To Information (RTI) application with the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) seeking details about the appointment of the next Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). But the DoPT refused to share the information, saying that the process of appointment was still on and the information was part of “cabinet papers,” which are exempted from disclosure.“I had in the past too filed RTIs seeking information on the appointment of the CIC and had never been refused before,” says Batra. The information was finally given to Batra after he put in an appeal.
Batra’s RTI had followed protests and a public interest litigation (PIL) by activists in 2014-15 after the post of Chief Information Commissioner was kept vacant for a long time. “The fact that a government allows the Information Commission to go headless for so long is itself an indication that the government is not very serious about making sure that people are able to access their right to information,” says activist Anjali Bhardwaj.
The RTI Act was passed in 2005 and has in the past helped uncover some big scams, such as the Adarsh Housing Scam in Mumbai where houses meant for war widows and veterans were given to politicians and bureaucrats irregularities in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2G scam. It has also been used extensively by people as a means to access their basic rights and entitlements. “About six to eight million RTI applications are filed in the country every year,” says activist Nikhil Dey.
Bhardwaj agrees. “Our research has shown that the poorest and the most marginalised are the primary users of the RTI,” she says. “There is very poor grievance redress mechanism in our country. If someone complains that he or she is not getting ration, pension, or any other basic right and entitlement, nothing happens. In such a situation people have found it useful to file an RTI application.”
A Worrying Change
But earlier this year the government proposed some changes to the RTI rules, which have caused concern to activists. Once passed, the RTI Rules 2017 will replace the RTI Rules 2012. The proposed rules were put out on the DoPT website for comments from the public.
There are two particularly worrying changes. The first is the provision that proceedings pending before the commission shall abate on the death of the appellant. The second is that the commission may allow an appellant to withdraw an appeal if the matter has not been finally heard or a decision or order not been pronounced by the commission.