Almost 3.15 lakh complaints or appeals are outstanding with 26 information commissioners throughout India, nearly 17 years after India passed the Right to Information (RTI) Act, indicating that the transparency system in the nation is still an illusion. Satark Nagrik Sangathan said that commissions have a backlog of appeals or complaints that is continuously growing each year.
According to information gathered from 26 information commissioners, in 2019, there were 2,183,347 appeals and complaints pending. With information from 23 information commissions, the number increased to 2,33,384 in 2020. With information from 26 commissioners, the number increased to 2,863,325 in 2021 and 3,143,323 in 2022.
Maharashtra has the most cases pending, with 99,722, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 44,482, Karnataka with 30,358, the Central Information Commission with 26,724 cases, and Bihar with 21,346 cases. According to the research, just 5% of the posts in the country’s 29 information commissioners are held by women, and two of them are entirely dead.
As all of the commissioner positions were vacant during the review period, three information commissions were found to have been inactive for differing amounts of time, while two commissions were discovered to have been inactive when Sangathan was compiling its report. Since their total collapse, Jharkhand and Tripura have been in existence for 29 and 15 months, respectively. There are no chiefs in Manipur, Telangana, West Bengal, or Andhra Pradesh. In addition, some information commissions, most notably the Central Information Commission, are working at a reduced capacity due to the presence of fewer members than necessary.
Information commissioners are required under the RTI law to protect and advance people’s basic rights to information and serve as the last appellate authority. When penalties were possibly imposed, the commissions did not apply them in 95% of the cases, according to a review of the fines levied.
“Information commissioners must operate effectively for people to understand their right to information.” The research demonstrates that because governments failed to designate information commissioners in a timely way, a significant backlog of cases has developed in some commissions, leading to a long waiting period before they are resolved.
Concerns about the late disposal rates in certain jurisdictions and the opaqueness of their operations are also raised in the study. Anjali Bharadwaj of Satark Nagarik Sangathan stated that there is an urgent need for the transparency watchdogs to operate more efficiently and transparently.
One-fourth of information commissioner positions are empty, and only 8% of women serve in this capacity, according to separate Transparency International research. 42 of the 165 available information commissioner positions—including the two main state information commissioners—are unfilled. According to the study, more than 4.2 billion RTIs have been submitted to date, and 26 lakh second appeals have been lodged with the commissions.
It’s noteworthy to note that state information commissioners in states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu get more appeals than the CIC of the federal government. The three information commissions getting the most RTIs were Maharashtra with 1.19 crore, Tamil Nadu with 36.99 lakh, and Kerala with 32.82 lakh. In comparison to 36 vacancies in 2021, there are currently 41 open Chief Information Commissioner and information commissioner positions out of 165 total positions.
One-fourth of the information commissioner positions are empty, with wait times at information commissions averaging two years owing to the backlog of appeals and complaints. The 17-year journey of RTI in India has been fraught with difficulties, according to Rama Nath Jha, director of Transparency International India. “Commissions are turning into parking lots for retired bureaucrats and the casual attitude by PIO/First Appellate Authority while rejecting RTI applications is a major challenge,” he said.
Additionally, the entire system requires digitization. Of the 29 information commissioners, just 11 offer an electronic filing option for RTI applications or appeals, and only five of those are operational. “Compared to what is possible with the conventional approach, the digital RTI portal (website or mobile app) can offer more efficient and user-friendly services. Prof. Madhu Bhalla, Chair of Transparency International India, pointed out that both the people who call for transparency and the government will gain from this.
What caused RTI to be implemented in India?
Governments have been under a range of internal and external pressures to embrace RTI.
- Scandals and corruption: The crisis was triggered by the government’s lack of transparency in its operations.
- Modernization and the Information Society: As the Internet has become more pervasive in society, there is a greater need for information from consumers, corporations, and civil society organizations.
- International pressure: The World Bank, the IMF, and other organizations have pushed nations to implement rules that will reduce corruption and increase the accountability of financial institutions.
- A better understanding of public interest: It makes sense that no freedom of information legislation defines public interest because it is such a highly subjective concept.
The Benefits of RTI
- Greater access to information: Under RTI, anybody can ask any public organization for copies, floppy discs, sample information, and other types of information.
- Effective governance: The RTI Act enables us to determine how well the government is run. In line with the goals of establishing a reliable, trustworthy, open, and effective government, RTI has come to pass.
- Participation of the public: Any public authority’s public officer or assistant public officer can be asked for information under the RTI Act.
- They have a government obligation to get information from all public authorities.
- Upkeep of public records: Following the RTI Act, public entities are required to keep records that can be easily accessed and to publish within 120 days the names of the specific officers who should provide the information as well as information about the creation of rules, regulations, etc.
- Citizens can now make educated decisions about everything that directly or indirectly impacts them.
Restrictions on the RTI
- Not a fundamental right Both the Right to Information (RTI) and the Right to Privacy—one of which is protected by Article 19(l)(a) and the other by Article 21—can be controlled, limited, or curtailed in the wider public interest.
- As a crucial component of freedom of expression, the RTI is subject to the limitations that can be placed on that right under Article 19. (2).
- Rule 4 of the RTI Act sets a word limit of 250 words (different languages require various numbers of words to communicate the same notion). The Word Limit, The Information Officer’s Secret Weapon, is the reason applications are turned down.
- Only data that has previously been recorded is accessible. Only information that is real and present in public authority records is accessible under the RTI Act.
- Information that is specifically prohibited from being revealed by a court or tribunal, or that might be considered to be in contempt of court under the 1971 Contempt of Court Act, is not permitted to be released.
- Information violates privilege since it cannot be released by a public entity because the Indian Constitution grants certain rights to the State Legislature and Parliament.
- Trade secrets and intellectual property information: No information, including business secrets, trade secrets, or intellectual property, may be revealed.
RTI Exercise Difficulties
Various sorts of information are sought that have no public interest and can occasionally be used to abuse the law and annoy public officials, such as requesting desperate and voluminous information.
- Popular (mis)application: Chauvinists who want attention sometimes submit RTI. It is commonly used as a vindictive strategy to pressurize or annoy already overworked government personnel.
- Instances of non-disclosure are increasing: The Indian Evidence Act has provisions requiring the disclosure of documents. The Official Secrets Act of 1923 works the same way.
- RTI has a limited scope: While the office of the CJI is now subject to RTI, the CBI is excluded. Threats to whistle blowers: Intimidation, threats, and killings of RTI activists are on the rise. There are no protections in place to protect the complainant from victimization.
The Importance of RTI
- A new bureaucracy was not established under the RTI Act of 2005 to carry out the law. Instead, it gave orders and mandated that officials in every office change their mentality from one of secrecy to one of sharing, openness, and accountability.
- RTI has been seen as essential to fostering participatory democracy and people-centered government.
- The capacity to demand and acquire knowledge about governmental actions and policies has improved the welfare of the impoverished and weaker sections of society.
- Early on, it showed promise by exposing wrongdoings at the highest levels, including the allocation of coal blocks, the design of the Commonwealth Games, and the distribution of the 2G spectrum.