October 12, 2020 marked the completion of 15 years of Right to Information (RTI) Act which has brought radical changes in the governance of the country. Right to Information is a fundamental right emerged of Article 19(1)(a) i.e. right to freedom of speech and expression. It is undoubtedly that RTI has been a powerful tool which claims responsibility of unearthing scams worth multi-millions and even helpful for bringing many irregularities and illegalities to light.
In last few years, thus there have been many attempts of debilitating the Act by the Central Government, amending some of its very important provisions thereby coercing the Information Commissioners (IC) to be upon the mercy of legislature, as and when they desire. However, besides this, what are the other causes that have led this powerful RTI Act to turmoil to what it is today? Here mentioned below are some of them:
Pendency in Hearing Second Appeals and Complaints.
According to a news published in Moneylife (July 2020), there are more than 50,000 second appeals pending with the Maharashtra State Information Commission which itself reflects the worsening situation of RTI in India.
Solution is that the Information Commissions initiate hearing appeals using audio-video technology with application of optimal resources and thereby saving time. Although this has been lately started by some Commissions, but its implementation has to be maximized widely.
In 2019, the amendments in RTI Act, 2005 usurped the control of Information Commissioners thereby demeaning the powers bestowed to them under their statutory status.
The superfluous amendments of Sections 13 and 16 in RTI Act, 2005 affected the salaries, terms and tenures of the Information Commissioners in Central and State Governments respectively. The purpose of these amendments infers that the Central or State Government will have control on powers of the Central and State Information Commissioners as the service conditions of the latter would now be subjected to enjoyment of the Government in power.
This has obviously struck a detrimental blow to the independent authority of Information Commissioners and caused an irreparable damage to the objective of RTI Act.
Constitution of Information Commissioners in Central and State Information Commissions.
Sections 12(5) and 15(5) of RTI Act deals with the constitution of Information Commissioners which prescribes them to be a person of eminence in fields of public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.
However, a news published in Moneylife (May 2018) suggests that 90% of Information Commissioners have being civil servants. This simply implies a sense of prejudice in the selection process of Information Commissioners and therefore raises many doubts in the minds of the appellants who are awaiting their hearing of appeals to be decided in a fair and reasonably justifiable manner without any biases.
Preference should nevertheless be given to candidates even from other fields of eminence rather than endowing an essence of post-retirement opportunities by offering these coveted posts to retired civil servants. If not, then it is but obvious that the Information Commissioners will probably be more inclined towards the political leaders who have helped in their appointment rather than delivering justice to the people before them.
Non-adherence to section 4(1)(b) by Public Authorities.
If adherence to section 4(1)(b) is implemented, it will ease a lot of burden for applicants and even for public authorities. The RTI applications seeking repeated and similar queries would drastically decline to good extent.
Collation and publication of information can be the best solution to reduce their burden of work which the Public Information Officers (PIOs) are often protesting about.
One such example is the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) which has introduced the concept of Open Day which is organised every Monday between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. for citizens to visit and inspect any records.
Another remarkable work is in progress by the Rajasthan Government which has developed a ‘Jan Soochna Portal’ and displayed in public domain almost all information relating to its schemes and policies for promoting transparency and accountability.
Non-appointment/Delayed appointment of Information Commissioners.
It is apparent that the tenure of an Information Commissioner is fixed, and their termination can be predicted well in advance but nonetheless it is a big lacuna that the Information Commissioners are not appointed on timely basis eventually resulting it into huge pendency of appeals and complaints.
The Leaflet recently in August 2020 had also published a story by Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) showcasing the huge impact caused owing to non-appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner in Central Information Commission of India. Such lethargy is enough to reveal the gravity of the NDA government which came to power, blatantly and falsely assuring the people of good governance and transparency in its agenda of 2019 general elections.
In a survey conducted by CHRI during the initial phases of lockdown amidst Covid-19 pandemic, it found that though the CIC had resumed hearings pertaining appeals and complaint cases since April 20, 2020, the performance of the State Information Commissions (SICs) was in utter dismay. The SICs in fact evidently failed to realize that the lockdown was an opportunity for them to discharge their duties and responsibilities in an efficient manner by highlighting the importance of transparency because such was the time that the public administration was compelled to function in a restricted manner owing to physical limitations and right of freedom to speech and expression is a right which can’t be suppressed even in its extreme and harsh conditions. But as they say that: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done” and this can be reflected in action only if the government whips its political willpower with the same vigour which it displays while initiating action against its citizens dissenting in democracy, known to be the world’s largest and even youngest.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.