RTI: Years of data go missing from Union govt information portal
An RTI activist from Bihar, Kanhaiya Kumar, confirmed that his account also showed a mismatch of several hundreds between January 2021 and August 2023
Several hundreds of records of applications have disappeared from the union government’s RTIOnline portal, which is what many citizens used for filing applications to get information from the government. Several RTI activists have confirmed this.
The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) administers the portal and disseminates training and standards for how government officials must handle RTI applications.
An RTI activist from Bihar, Kanhaiya Kumar, confirmed that his account also showed a mismatch of several hundreds between Jan 2021 and August 2023. An account used by a National Herald journalist could not be accessed as there no longer was a ‘forgot password’ option.
The RTIOnline portal allows citizens to pay ₹10 through many digital payment options to file an RTI application, a facility that is far more convenient than the other typical method of mailing an application through post with a postal cheque, which must be purchased and stamped beforehand. The portal is maintained by the National Informatics Centre (NIC).
According to a report in The Hindu, the RTIOnline portal has processed over 58.3 lakh applications from 2013, when it was launched, to 2022. The number of applications filed has been growing steadily, with over 12.6 lakh applications filed in 2022. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which administers the portal did not respond to a query from The Hindu on the missing data.
The RTIOnline site allows citizens to file applications with all Union Ministries, their Departments, subsidiary institutions, regulators, India’s foreign missions, and to governments of certain Union Territories. Citizens can file RTI applications either by creating an account on the RTIOnline portal and then paying Rs 10 per application or mailing an application through post with a postal cheque, which must be purchased and stamped beforehand. The portal is maintained by the National Informatics Centre (NIC).
Last year, the Union Government removed the facility of creating an account on the RTIOnline portal, with the DoPT citing a “heavy load” on the website. Existing account holders must file at least one application in a six-month period if they wish to retain their accounts.
It is easier to have an account as then the personal details of applicants are pre-filled and they don’t need to be filled for every application. Without it, applicants now have to fill in their personal details each time they file an application.
Srinivas Kodali, a digital rights activist, tweeted that he had filed hundreds of RTIs part of his work to document digitisation in India. “I have received thousands of pages, CDs, DVDs. NIC has now deleted all the RTI requests from http://rtionline.gov.in. This is almost deleting archival history of governance in this country,” wrote Kodali.
He added that this was as serious as removing government orders. “There was no official intimation about it to any of the RTI portal users,” he said.
The Right to Information Act, 2005, was a historic law in India that empowered a citizen to demand public information from governments, opening them up to scrutiny. However, since 2014, the ability to get information through applications, or in appeal, has been hampered by an air of unwillingness in the ruling establishment and often the non-appointment of Information Commissioners for years.
Every year nearly six million applications are filed under the RTI Act, making it the most extensively used transparency legislation in the world. National assessments have shown that a large proportion of these are filed by the poorest, wrote RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri. By giving every citizen of India the right to access government files and records, the law has potentially created 1.3 billion whistleblowers and auditors.
In 2019, regressive amendments were made to the RTI Act which did away with statutory protection of fixed tenure and high status conferred on the commissioners. Despite stiff opposition within and outside Parliament, the government pushed the RTI (Amendment) Act which allows the Central government to determine the tenure and salaries of all Information Commissioners.
Since May 2014, not a single commissioner of the Central Information Commission (CIC) has been appointed without citizens having to approach courts. Currently, Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha is the Chief Information Commissioner. The Central Information Commission is the highest appellate body under the Right to Information Act.
The passage of the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill in the last session of parliament will amount to amending the RTI Act through the backdoor, said experts. The Bill has since been signed into law. The new data Bill prohibits government agencies from sharing private information of any kind, regardless of the public interest it may entail.
Published: 24 Aug 2023, 12:12 PM