Serious defects in working of RTI Act: Study

Published : October 16, 2018 19:24 IST

In Ongole, Andhra Pradesh, people append their signature to an awareness campaign on RTI Act in July. Photo: Kommuri Srinivas

A research study conducted by the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and Centre for Equity Studies, on the orders of the Central Information Commission (CIC), has revealed serious shortcomings in the working of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.

The study, which analysed 549 orders of the CIC from January 1 to March 31 this year, found that 7 per cent of the orders contained deficiencies in terms of not recording critical facts such as information sought by the appellant/complainant. The study, however, recorded that this was an improvement over the finding for the 2013-2016 period when 63 per cent of the orders did not describe the information sought.

The study found that in several cases where information was denied, the orders were not adequately reasoned and, therefore, fell under the category of non-speaking orders. The orders denying information ought to explain why a particular exemption from disclosure was valid. People had a right to know not just the decision but also the basis of the decision. The study pointed out that whereas information-seekers and public authorities concerned were “affected persons”, the decisions of the CIC often had far-reaching consequences on the public’s right to access information. Therefore, passing a non-speaking order, which only records the decision of the I.C. (Information Commissioner) and does not provide the reasons for the decisions or other relevant details, is a violation of people’s right to information and goes against the fundamental principles of transparency, the study observed.

Secondly, the study found that on average, the CIC took 319 days to hear and give an order on an appeal/complaint from the date when it was filed before the commission. The time taken by the CIC ranged from disposal within 36 days of a case being filed to 862 days or nearly two and a half years. The study, however, could not fathom the reasons for this large variation in the disposal time. Inordinate delays made the law meaningless for its users, the study pointed out.

While the law envisages a fixed time limit for the disposal of cases by the Principal Information Officers (PIOs), the study recorded that violations of the Act by the PIOs in this regard were not penalised, and in the meantime the PIOs retired, making it impossible for the penalty to be levied on them. Besides, the study found that the I.Cs imposed a penalty in only an extremely small fraction of the cases, in which penalty of up to Rs.25,000 was imposable on the erring PIOs. An average of 56 per cent of the orders recorded one or more violations by the PIOs, on the grounds listed under the Act. The non-imposition of penalty promoted a culture of impunity, the study pointed out. It estimated that a loss of Rs.203 crore was caused annually by the I.Cs not imposing penalties as required under the law.

Nearly 25,000 appeals/complaints have been pending with the CIC since January 1. A major reason is the non-filling of vacancies in the CIC. There are only seven commissioners at present, and with four commissioners, including the CIC, set to retire by December 1, the pendency of cases will become acute.

Further, the study found that more than 60 per cent of the denials of information by the CIC were in violation of the RTI Act. These denials were on the basis of exemptions citing grounds which were not provided in the Act.

The study recorded a disturbing finding of gender imbalance in the access to information under the Act. While 91 per cent of the appeals/complaints were filed by men, only nine per cent were by women.

Lastly, it found that in 44 per cent of the RTI applications, the information that was sought, at least a part of the information if not all of it, was such that it should have been made public proactively without anyone applying for it.

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