Right to information

All talk, little information

Print edition : June 23, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting the new CIC, R.K. Mathur, at Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 4, 2016. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with CIC Wajahat Habibullah at the national convention on "One year of RTI" in New Delhi in October 2006. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Comparison of RTI data show that the Narendra Modi government has not been as good for right to information as its predecessor, the Manmohan Singh regime, was.

IN October 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the inaugural speaker at the annual convention of the Central Information Commission (CIC). The top body for adjudicating matters concerning the Right to Information (RTI) Act was marking 10 years of its existence, and there was curiosity about what Modi had to say about the law.

Addressing a large gathering in Vigyan Bhavan, a government-run convention centre in New Delhi, the Prime Minister said: “It is true that Right to Information, first and foremost, gives the right to the most ordinary persons to seek information. But it should not be limited to that. The ordinary person should also have the right to question the rulers. And this is the foundation of democracy. The faster we work towards achieving that, people’s trust in democracy will increase accordingly. A conscious citizenry, in a way, also empowers the administration and becomes a great gift for the nation….”

Clearly, that was a firm endorsement of the letter and spirit of the RTI Act from the man who was leading the new political dispensation at the Centre. But three years after coming to power, has the Modi government followed the spirit of the RTI Act in its governance? A preliminary assessment of official data collected from the CIC’s annual reports—which record the performances of various ministries and departments—confirms convincingly what was so far known only by way of anecdotes and claims made by activists: that the Modi regime has not been good for RTI.

An assessment of relevant data recorded in the CIC’s annual reports of top government departments was conducted by Venkatesh Nayak and John Mascrinaus of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an international not-for-profit organisation, for Frontline in early May. Their assessment includes all the annual reports of the CIC from the first one for 2005-06 to the most recent one for 2015-16 (it was released in March 2017). The reports are typically released a year late for multiple administrative reasons. While doing the present analysis, it was found that data concerning some parameters during the initial years of the Act’s implementation were either incomplete or not recorded. But what is available in the reports for subsequent years sufficiently shows a notable difference in trends of implementation of the RTI Act during the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the ongoing term of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

PMO and RTI

Significantly, data show that the performance of the politically most influential office in the current government, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), has been far from impressive with respect to the implementation of the RTI Act. In fact, the PMO under Manmohan Singh performed relatively better than the current one under Modi in providing information to applicants. This fact was revealed through multiple parameters for which data are available in the annual reports to gauge the quality of implementation of the transparency legislation.

The most worrisome parameter in the records concerns the rising number of applications that were denied information without providing any legally valid reasons. Sections 8, 9, 11 and 24 of the RTI Act have provisions that spell out the reasons for exemption from the obligation to provide information. However, PMO officials have increasingly denied information to RTI users without citing any of these reasons. There has also been a sharp rise in the number of applications received by the PMO compared with the Manmohan Singh years. However, this increase is a trend that is common for the government as a whole.

In 2014-15, the first year of the Modi government, the number of RTI applicants who were denied information by the PMO without citing any reason was 2,781, the highest number of rejections so far since the law came into force. In the following year, this number came down to 2,227, and there was a slight decrease in the number of applications received as well compared with the previous year.

In Manmohan Singh’s tenure, the number of rejections without citing any reason peaked at 1,415 in 2013-14, the last year of his tenure, which is significantly less than the figure recorded during Modi’s first year in office. (See table. Data for the first three years of the RTI Act’s implementation were unavailable in sufficient detail as not all public authorities filed their data with the CIC for compilation.)

Disturbing truth

In the annual reports, the numbers of RTI applications denied information without giving reasons are recorded under the heading “Others”. Such unexplained rejection by public authorities is not limited to the PMO and is practised across all departments of the government. Consolidated numbers from RTI data filed by all public authorities reveal a disturbing truth: in 2015-16 the number of applications rejected without giving reasons, 36,913, was the highest in the decade since the implementation of the Act. The highest number of such rejections during the tenure of the previous government was 26,673.

Government officials often explain away these numbers by saying that they comprise mostly flippant RTI queries. Some RTI queries are, indeed, flippant. However, hard evidence to support this assertion has never been provided. It remains a matter of study as to why this number remains high and ever rising.

Another important parameter concerns the percentage of RTI queries rejected after providing proper reasons. The numbers in terms of this parameter, too, remain worryingly high for the PMO under Modi. In fact, in the first year of Modi’s term, records show that the PMO rejected 22.10 per cent of all applications citing exemptions, the highest since the RTI Act came into force. In the following year (2015-16), however, this number came down to 20.10 per cent.

In comparison, during Manmohan Singh’s tenure, the highest number of such rejections was 20.50 per cent during his last year in office. For the earlier years of Manmohan Singh’s term, the figures were sharply lower.

Qualitative difference

Speaking to Frontline, Venkatesh Nayak explained the overall trend in the implementation of RTI in Modi’s government compared with Manmohan Singh’s government. “There is a noticeable shift in the manner of receipt and disposal of RTIs among the major ministries when a comparative picture is drawn using data from 2005-06. Taking into consideration the 40 ministries and departments, the PMO and the Secretariats of Parliament, the major trend is that rejection rates have gone up in many ministries that received more RTIs than before in the last two years and also in ministries that received fewer RTIs than before in the last two years. Both line ministries and regulatory ministries display this trend. In a small number of ministries, the rejection rate has fallen despite an increase in the number of RTI applications received,” he said.

The Ministries of Finance, Home Affairs, and Corporate Affairs are among the ministries that show a record of worrying performance vis-a-vis RTI. Yet, this has not reduced the number of applications they receive.

Explaining why there is an increase in the absolute number of RTIs being filed despite less-than-satisfactory performance in the Act’s implementation, Nayak said: “Overall, the number of RTIs filed with the GoI [Government of India] seems to have peaked in recent years. However, this may not be due to increased proactive disclosure of information because the CIC’s own study from 2016 has shown that most ministries and departments have not complied with the detailed guidelines for improving suo motu disclosure of information. This, in turn, may indicate RTI fatigue setting in due to the resistant attitude adopted by these ministries. The long pendency period for appeal and complaint cases before the CIC could also be a reason for this fatigue. However, a detailed analysis of the actual RTIs filed and the responses from these ministries is essential to confirm the statistical trend observed from the CIC’s annual reports. The Prime Minister suggested that such a study be conducted when he inaugurated the 10th anniversary celebrations at the CIC convention. However, two years down the line, the results of such studies are yet to be published in the public domain.”

Other institutions

Apart from the PMO and major ministries, many other institutions too do not have a particularly impressive record in RTI implementation. Data show that the Supreme Court continues to be in the 20 per cent-plus range in its rejection rates. This is considered a fairly high proportion since the basic assumption of the transparency law is that all information is public and that public authorities only have to segregate the exempted information. In 2015-16, the Supreme Court rejected 21.10 per cent applications by giving reasons. Data for 2014-15 were not available for a comparison.

In the case of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), a year-on-year comparison throws worrisome information. In 2015-16, the CAG registered its highest rejection rate in 10 years at 17.20 per cent, a sharp increase from the 6.30 per cent recorded in 2014-15. These rejections were accompanied by proper explanations, though. The RTI applications rejected without giving any reasons were relatively fewer.

In response to many of these grim numbers, senior government officials point out that the 6.62 per cent overall rejection rate of applications after giving reasons in 2015-16 was the third lowest ever. But, when asked about the parallel rise in the number of applications rejected without providing any reasons, no official could provide a convincing answer. Frontline reached out to the PMO for comment, but no response had arrived until the time of going to press.

Officials often point out the many measures implemented by the current Chief Information Commissioner, R.K. Mathur, to clear the long list of pending cases with the CIC as proof of the positive intent on the part of the administration towards RTI. However, most RTI watchers and applicants this correspondent spoke to do not seem particularly optimistic about the future of the transparency legislation in the current regime.

Backlogs

Commodore Lokesh Batra, a veteran, who has a long record of pursuing many high-profile issues relating to public interest, said the RTI was at its peak until September 2013 when Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra retired. After that, most Chief Information Commissioners had brief terms and the CIC was also headless for 10 months. This had an impact on its functioning, with backlogs piling up to tens of thousands of applications waiting to be heard. Even though a full-time Chief Information Commissioner was appointed in January 2016, the context in which he took charge was different. “So the quality of a decision of the Chief Information Commission has a direct impact on the public authorities. Once they [the public authorities] know that nothing much is going to happen to them [if they do not give information], then of course they couldn’t care less about giving information. Now the situation is such that information is not easy to get,” he said.

Among the most recent high-profile issues Batra pursued was concerning the foreign tour expenses of Modi. The PMO recently uploaded fresh details of the Prime Minister’s foreign tour expenses on the official website after this veteran RTI user’s plea. Batra says he ran into much opposition from the PMO while trying to get that information. This is an experience many RTI users who file applications with the PMO narrate.

In this context, it is worth recalling Modi’s own speech at the October 2015 CIC convention. “The ordinary person should also have the right to question the rulers. And this is the foundation of democracy,” said Modi. Perhaps PMO officials should pay heed to his words.

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