Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lakhs of pending appeals threaten to kill RTI Act

Dinamalar ePaper

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DNA Special: Eight years on, lakhs of pending appeals threaten to kill RTI Act

Saturday, 12 October 2013 - 8:01am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: DNA

Mayank Aggarwal and Sudhir Shetty DNA

Even as India celebrates the eighth anniversary of the Right to Information (RTI) Act that made common man feel empowered and was instrumental in exposing nearly all big scams in the last few years, pendency of appeals and complaints piling up at the information commissions are making it toothless. According to estimates, across the country, several lakhs of appeals and complaints are pending.

Since October 12, 2005, when the RTI Act came into force, common man in India has embraced it whole heartedly using it for things like getting a ration card to exposing scams such as the 2G spectrum. Numerous attempts to dilute the transparency Act, hailed amongst the biggest achievements of the Congress-led UPA-I government, were defeated time and again by activists and the common man.

But what is easily defeating the RTI Act and the spirit of those using it is the poor functioning of information commissions in the states as well as the Central Information Commission. Issues such as pendency of appeals and complaints at the information commissions are killing people's enthusiasm towards the transparency act leaving them frustrated.

"My appeal at CIC regarding proactive disclosures by the Ministry of Defence and Railways was decided after two-and-a-half years. The Commission had asked the public authorities to comply with the order in eight weeks. But it has been two years since then and no action has been  taken on that decision as yet. I have filed one more RTI application to know what happened to the compliance of that order," CJ Karira, who is involved in running an online community of around four lakh RTI users, told DNA.

Recounting experiences of many RTI applicants, Karira said a long wait at the information commissions for appeal is discouraging people in a big way.  "Information Commissions, which themselves are expected to help in ushering in transparency, are the biggest roadblocks as they are not even revealing details about appeals and complaints pending with them. Phones of some information commissions are not working as they have not paid their telephone dues," Karira added.

Pendency of appeals and complaints at the Central Information Commission  itself stands at over 19,000.

"More thanr 50,000 complaints and appeals are still pending with the Maharashtra Information Commission. Madhya Pradesh Information Commission has not settled even a single case in the past one year. It is headless. It even does not have a commissioner. So, basically the information commissions needs to pull up their socks otherwise the act soon will become meaningless," Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative told DNA.

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Is the RTI Act gradually becoming ineffective? 

15 Mar, 2014

Since its enactment in 2005, the Right to Information (RTI) Act has raised expectations amongst the citizens while evoking fear amongst the corrupt. However, the working of the transparency law has raised serious questions about the future of the Act. The Act is facing challenges from multiple fronts. High number of appeals There are nearly 1.5 lakhs appeals are pending before the different information commissions in the country, some of which since 2011. The high pendency is on account of low number of information commissioners and less disposal from the existing number of Information Commissioners. The figures show that: 
  • More than 24,000 appeals are pending before the central information commission
  • More than 35,000 appeals are pending before the Maharashtra State Information Commission
  • More than 24,000 pending are pending before the Karnataka State Information Commission 
  • Denial of information on flimsy ground 
The lack of disciplinary action against the erring public information officers (PIOs) has led to absence of fear amongst the officials. Statistics shows that the number of PIOs are penalised is less than 5 per cent of the cases. A penalty can be imposed under section 20 of the RTI Act if the PIO has not furnished the information sought within 30 days, or knowingly given incorrect, incomplete or misleading information. Absence of penal action has led to a situation where denial of information is becoming common. Some of the common replies for denial of information are:
  • the query is not specific
  • the documents are voluminous
  • information is not available
  • documents are missing or not traceable
  • the information is in public domain
  • deemed refusal where the applicants don't get a response or gets a reply after much delay. 

Infrequent penalty on PIO 

According to a statistics, penalties have been imposed on PIOs in only 1,000 cases of the more than 1.7 lakh appeals that were disposed in the eight years since the RTI Act has come into existence. Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi feels that if the PIOs don't have the threat of penalty, then RTI is under threat. 

Attacks on RTI activists 

Attacks on the RTI activists cause a threat to their lives leading to a scare amongst the information seekers. As per statistics compiled by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), nearly 250 individuals have been allegedly harassed or attacked physically or their property damaged. 

Judicial delays 

Many progressive orders of the Information Commissions have been stayed and are hence held in abeyance. 

Absence of political will 

The ruling class belonging to all the major political properties does not seem to be interested in enforcing the RTI Act on their own selves. 

Lack of awareness

There has been an increase in the awareness levels amongst the citizens but the number of those who still have little or no information about the transparency law is very high. Many of the Public Information Officers and First Appellate Authorities are not adequately trained. Suo-motu disclosure remains a distant dream. Will appropriate steps be taken to add teeth to the RTI Act?

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The RTI Act was passed by the Lok Sabha (Lower House) on 11 May 2005, by the Raj Sabha (Upper House) on 12 May 2005 and received Presidential assent on 15 June 2005. Parts of the Act came into force upon Presidential assent, but the Act came fully into force on 12 October 2005, 120 days after Presidential assent.

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