A close look at performance of Right to Information (RTI) Act

On the 14th anniversary of the Right to Information (RTI), IPD analyzes the performance of the RTI mechanism set up to bring greater transparency in public affairs.

A major lacunae in the RTI is the delays in appointment of the information commissioners. As of date, 4 slots remain vacant in the Central commission. Against the 11 sanctioned strength of 11, the CIC is performing with 7 members only. Many of the state information commissions also fare likewise: Rajasthan IC is without a chief since December 2018 while TN also doesn’t have one post May 2019.

The information commission of Andhra Pradesh functioned for both AP and the newly created Telangana state. In May 2017, all the members retired and the commission remained defunct for 17 months until Oct 2018 when 3 members were appointed post the intervention of the Supreme Court. Even then it remains without a chief. The Tripura IC functioned till Apr 2019 with only a chief commissioner who retired that month beyond which, the commission has been defunct.

As can be expected, the above directly contributes to large back-log of appeals and unresolved complaints. As of Mar-2019, total 2.18 lakh cases are pending with the state information commissions. The CIC has over 33000 pending cases as of Oct-2019. In Maharashtra, number of pending cases stood at 46000 as of 31-Mar, 2019. In Uttar Pradesh, pending cases increased from 47000 on Jan 1, 2019 to 51682 by end of February. The newly formed Telangana state commission has just 2 members and had 9000 pending cases as of 31-Mar 2019. Same number for Odisha stood at 11500 while West Bengal, which also has had only 2 commissioners for over 2 years now, had 8000 pending appeals as of end of March. Average time taken to dispose an appeal stands at 18 years for Andhra Pradesh state commission and 7.4 years for West Bengal state commission respectively.

When the RTI was set up, it was prescribed that the RTI commissioners should be selected from diverse backgrounds. Yet the ground realities tell a completely different story. 58% of commissioners on whom information is available are retired government officials. This figure rises to 83% in case of Chief ICs with 64% being former IAS officers. The trend is worse on gender parity – only 10% of commissioners were female and even this abysmal figure further drops to 7% among Chiefs.

The central and state election commissions also have been found to be strangely reluctant in imposition of penalties on officials found to be in violation. All in all, taken together, the central and state information commissions levied a penalty in only 3% cases out all appeals in the Jan’18-Mar’19 period. Details explained in graph below:

Penalty imposed as % of total appeals filed: Jan’18 –> Mar’19, Central & states

A similar trend is observed in cases of awarding of compensation to aggrieved petitioners. From Jan’18 – Mar’19, only 16 commissions awarded any such compensation. A total sum of Rs 30.87 lakhs was awarded in compensation out of which Punjab (9.51 lakhs), Haryana (7.16 lakhs) and Central commission (6.92 lakhs) together accounted for almost 80%. Laxity in awarding of penalties (to offenders) and compensation (to aggrieved) gives errant officials the scope of repeating their violations knowing that they are highly likely to get away without much censure.

22 of the state commissions did not publish an annual report for 2018 while Punjab commission has not published any since 2012. This lack of transparency on part of the instrument themselves is a cause of grave concern.

The July 2019 amendments to sections 13, 15 and 27 of the RTI Act 2005 has also adversely affected the perceived power and status of the information commission office bearers. Earlier, the central and state information commissioners had a fixed tenure of 5 years subject to retirement at age of 65. Their pay was also equivalent to central and state election commissioners. But post the recent amendment, both tenure and pay of the CIC and SIC members will be determined by the ruling government. This has led to a sense of fear among the members leading to further paralysis of action.

The RTI, set up as a tool to bring greater transparency in public affairs and ensure fair civil life for the citizens of our country, today stands in a precarious state, needing urgent intervention itself for revival and smooth functioning.

Source:  ‘Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India’ by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and the Centre for Equity Studies (CES).

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