When the Right to Information (RTI) Act came into force on October 12, 2005, it was hailed as the “sunshine law” which would make governments transparent and accountable besides empowering citizens through their enhanced participation in democratic processes. Sadly, the shine has since faded and public-spirited RTI users are a disillusioned lot today. Targeted attacks, threats, and false criminal cases are what they have to deal with now on a regular basis.
“Of all the risks and assaults what is most painful is the misnomer that RTI activists are ‘blackmailers’,” said Amra Ram, a 30-year-old RTI activist from Rajasthan’s Barmer district. He faced a brutal assault in December 2021—his hands and legs were broken and pierced with nails. The provocation, according to reports, was his sustained work exposing corruption in projects granted under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in Kumpaliya panchayat. Almost one year after the attack on him, said Ram, “the police are yet to nab half the accused persons”.
Kavita Srivastava, national president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), said: “Over the past 10 years, more than a dozen RTI activists have been brutally attacked in Rajasthan alone. And yet it is not an issue for political parties.”
According to Nikhil Dey, founding member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), more than 100 RTI users have been murdered all over India in the 17 years since the Act came into being.
Recently, Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), a citizens’ group working to promote transparency and accountability in governance, released a report on the performance of Information Commissions. “The law has initiated the vital task of redistributing power in a democratic framework,” wrote Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri, activists associated with the SNS and NCPRI, in the report. An estimated 60 lakh RTI applications are filed in India annually, said the report.
“The (COVID-19) pandemic, coupled with high levels of unemployment and rising inflation, has made millions of families more dependent on the government for delivery of basic goods and services than ever before,” it pointed out.
The report reveals that at least two State Information Commissions (SIC)—Jharkhand and Tripura—were defunct as new commissioners have not been appointed upon the incumbents demitting office. Additionally, as many as four commissions were headless—the SICs of Manipur, Telangana, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh.
Maintaining that the backlog of appeals and complaints has been steadily increasing, the SNS study stated that 3,14,323 appeals and complaints were pending as on June 30, 2022, in the 26 Information Commissions. When it came to the average monthly disposal rate and pendency in commissions, the West Bengal SIC would take an estimated 24 years and 3 months to dispose a matter, the report stated. “In Odisha and Maharashtra SICs, estimated time for disposal is more than five years and in Bihar more than two years,” it said. Notably, the commissions did not impose penalties in 95 per cent of the cases where penalties were potentially imposable.
“The functioning of commissions is a major bottleneck in the effective implementation of the RTI law,” the report noted. “Large backlog of appeals and complaints in many commissions across the country have resulted in inordinate delays in disposal of cases, which render the law ineffective. Commissions have been found to be extremely reluctant to impose penalties on erring officials for violations of the law. Unfortunately, the transparency watchdogs themselves have not had a shining track record in terms of being transparent and accountable to the people of the country.”
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In Jammu and Kashmir, official claims regarding clean and efficient governance after the revocation of the special status of the erstwhile State seem misplaced in the context of the RTI Act. Unlike the Central law, the repealed Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act, 2009, had provisions that mandated the SIC to decide RTI appeals within 60 to 120 days. “Under the Central Information Commission (CIC), disposal of appeals is taking an unusually long time,” said Raja Muzaffar Bhat, chairman and founder of J&K RTI Movement. “Since the Union Territory doesn’t have an SIC, all RTI appeals from UTs are listed before the CIC in New Delhi. My own RTI second appeal could be listed before the CIC early this year after 13 months,” he said.
“The SNS report stated that 3,14,323 appeals and complaints were pending as on June 30, 2022, in the 26 Information Commissions.”
Bhat said that with the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, “the mindset of government officials too has changed since the J&K SIC has been shut down. Also, the government has not held any orientation programme or training workshop for its officers and citizens on the RTI Act 2005.”
Pradip Pradhan, national co-convener of NCPRI and convener of the Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijan (OSAA), a forum of RTI activists, said that to check growing activism, the Odisha Information Commission had filed defamation cases against two RTI activists in the civil court in Bhubaneswar. “The attack on RTI activists in Odisha is part of a well-thought-out plan to render the Act dysfunctional. The state machinery and mafias are working in tandem to tarnish their image and belittle their work,” Pradhan said. “Several RTI activists pay the price for their activism as they are subjected to humiliation, threats of arrest, and false and fabricated legal cases,” he added.
On March 27, 2021, Sarbeswar Behura, 52, a member of OSAA, was critically injured when bombs were hurled at his car. Rilu Behura, Sarbeswar’s wife, went to Dharmashala police station the next day along with Pradip Pradhan and RTI activists Srikant Pakal and Jitendra Sahu, to register a case, but the police refused and said they had registered a case on their own. “Behura has been attacked twice in the past. Though he filed FIRs, the police did not take any action,” Pradhan said.
Ram and Behura escaped with their lives. Many are not so fortunate. Ranjan Kumar Das of OSAA was murdered on January 31, 2020. In Madhya Pradesh, RTI activist Ranjeet Soni was shot dead on June 2, 2022. Reportedly, he regularly sought information about government expenditure on infrastructure development, hospitals and welfare schemes. In Barmer, RTI activist Jagdish Goliya, 47, died in police custody in 2019 after he was arrested over a land dispute. “Though he had suffered serious internal injuries, he wasn’t taken to hospital,” said Kavita Srivastava. “Those who try to expose corruption end up being slapped with false police cases. But we hardly see any action against the perpetrators who threaten and harass RTI users,” she added.
Regarding vindictive FIRs filed against RTI users, Justice (retired) Madan B. Lokur said: “In most cases, they are falsely booked under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act or slapped with molestation charges. In such cases, it becomes difficult to get bail.”
Lokur said financial compensation should be provided in cases where RTI activists are murdered, attacked, or persecuted. Despite the Supreme Court’s clear directions, the police often delay filing FIRs on receiving complaints from persecuted RTI activists, he pointed out. “Even in cases where FIRs are registered, action is rarely taken against the real conspirators. Only henchmen are prosecuted,” he said.
Incidentally, the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2014, notified on May 12, 2014, has not been implemented so far. The law, according to the Union Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, needs amendments to bar disclosures affecting sovereignty and integrity of India. Pradhan said that instead of waiting for the Centre to implement the Act, “State governments should bring in their own laws for the protection of whistle-blowers and their families.”
Through the Draft RTI Rules 2017, the Narendra Modi government proposed that proceedings relating to an RTI query should automatically stop if the applicant dies during the pendency of an appeal before the CIC. “We fought against this proposal and didn’t let it get implemented,” said Dey.
Following the mysterious death of RTI activist Ravinder Balwani, the CIC had moved a resolution in 2011 that read: “If the Commission receives a complaint regarding assault or murder of an information seeker, it will examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned Department(s) to publish the requested information suo motu on their website as per the provisions of law.”
The resolution said governments must take steps for the protection of RTI users. “This resolution should be firmly implemented by the CIC and SICs. It will send out a message that the issues won’t die down in case you kill an RTI user or one dies because of any other reason,” Dey said.
Clearly, there is a strong need to strengthen the RTI law to fulfil its objectives. RTI crusaders feel that the opposite is happening. In 2019, the Right to Information (Amendment) Act was passed without any discussion in Parliament. The amendments not just undermined the position of the CIC and the SICs but also made them subservient to the government.
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Commenting on the changes, social activist Aruna Roy accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of weakening the RTI movement. “Amendments to the RTI in 2019 mark a watershed in successive governments’ attempts to dilute the Act. The BJP government prevailed over citizens’ resistance against weakening the law. It strategically reduced the power and independence of Central and State Information Commissions and brought both the bodies under its control,” Roy said, adding, “The RTI movement continues. But the machinery for the implementation of the law has been weakened, severely diluting democratic practice in India.”
On September 9, 2021, a group of 15 sitting and retired Information Commissioners wrote to the then Chief Justice of India (CJI), N.V. Ramana, complaining that High Courts were staying the orders of Information Commissioners. The letter requested CJI Ramana to direct the courts not to entertain pleas against orders passed by the CIC and SICs. Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi told Frontline: “The letter elicited zero response. The situation hasn’t changed. And this is in violation of the [RTI] law.”
On complaints regarding delayed responses to pleas concerning life and liberty issues (except sensitive criminal matters), where information is to be provided within 48 hours of receiving an application filed under Section 7 (1) of the RTI Act, Gandhi said: “Governments seem incapable of implementing the law.”
- Right to Information (RTI) Act came into force on October 12, 2005.
- RTI users are a disillusioned lot today.
- Targeted attacks, threats, and false criminal cases are what they have to deal with now on a regular basis.
- Recently, Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), a citizens’ group working to promote transparency and accountability in governance, released a report on the performance of Information Commissions.
- The SNS study stated that 3,14,323 appeals and complaints were pending as on June 30, 2022, in the 26 Information Commissions.
- The Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2014, notified on May 12, 2014, has not been implemented so far.
- There is a strong need to strengthen the RTI law to fulfil its objectives.