Herald View: RTI Act dying a slow death
On its 17th anniversary this week, a report compiled by NGO Satark Nagrik Sangathan reveals that over 300,000 applications, appeals for information are pending before various information commissions
Held up at one point as a model of progressive legislation to ensure transparency in governance, the Right to Information Act, 2005, is dying a slow death. On its 17th anniversary this week, a report compiled by the NGO Satark Nagrik Sangathan reveals that over 300,000 applications and appeals for information are pending before various information commissions, including the Central Information Commission. Two state commissions, the report records, have been defunct for a long time while four others have been headless. Nearly 25 per cent, or a fourth, of the posts of information commissioners are vacant. (Not quite on point, but unsurprisingly, only five per cent of the information commissioners are women, the report mentions.) Twenty of 29 information commissions have never published an annual report. Eleven of the 29 commissions supposedly allow e-filing of applications but only five of those work.
Analysis of the data revealed that in 95 per cent of the cases, where commissions could have imposed penalties for withholding information, they let off the public authorities concerned quite lightly. Ever since the current Union government amended the Act in 2019, empowering itself to determine the tenure and terms, including salary, perks and pension, of all information commissioners, in the states as well as at the Centre, the rejection of RTI applications on flimsy grounds has become routine and the accountability of states has declined. Ironically, the rejections have mostly been on the ground that the application itself was frivolous or that the information sought did not involve public interest. A third reason commonly cited for rejecting applications has been that the information sought would take long to compile and, therefore, amounted to harassment. Activists and NGOs who have studied these cases say not more than 1 per cent of the applications could legitimately be described as frivolous.
Giving voice to the ruling establishment’s contempt for the RTI Act, Swapan Dasgupta, a nominated BJP member of the Rajya Sabha, said in 2019 that the RTI Act had been hijacked by activists. The government’s contempt for the RTI Act is such an open secret that the entire public sector is stonewalling RTI requests: PSU banks, for example, refuse to divulge the names of high-value loan defaulters but have no inhibitions going after smaller borrowers unable to pay back loans. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), a party incidentally in power in Jharkhand, is forced to file an RTI application to seek information about the Election Commission’s opinion, given to the Governor, on whether the chief minister had been disqualified as a member of the state assembly. For six years now, Delhi University has denied information on the Prime Minister’s educational qualification. Even after the information commission directed it to disclose the information, the university claimed it would infringe the ex-student’s right to privacy. Neither the university nor a court of law has been able to explain why the information is deemed a secret when results of successful students in examinations are released as a matter of routine and convocations are held in public.
In the worst instances, denial of information takes the shape of barefaced lies. For example, the government stated in Parliament that it had “no information” on the number of Covid-19 victims who died of oxygen shortage or migrant labourers who passed away while walking back home during the lockdown. It has also stopped compiling or releasing unemployment data and data gleaned by household consumption surveys. The government has also been adding to the list of entities and authorities exempted from disclosing information under the RTI Act. It was, however, the RTI Act that revealed that the Reserve Bank of India had opposed demonetisation in 2016. It was the RTI Act that brought to light the fact that the PMO had received a list of big defaulters responsible for the humongous NPAs (non-performing assets) of PSU banks. But in the wisdom of this government, if something can shed a harsh light on its inadequacies, then that light must be put out.