RTI activists have expressed concern that the rate of application rejection, without adequate reasoning, is still high.
New Delhi: While the annual report 2015-16 of the Central Information Commission (CIC) has indicated a return to the trend of increasing Right to Information Act applications filed, after a surprising dip in 2014-15 when the number of pleas dropped by 12.21% in comparison to the previous year, the data is not absolutely encouraging for the transparency movement. It also indicates an increasing rate of rejection of applications, failure of public authorities to file their annual returns and the tendency of authorities to cite exemptions for denying information.
What is worse is that there appears to be encouragement for these practices right from the very top, with the prime minister’s office too guilty of rejecting nearly 20% of all requests on such grounds. During the year in question, it rejected 2,234 out of the 11,138 petitions received by it.
According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which did a quick analysis of the CIC data, as many as 9.76 lakh RTI applications were received by the registered public authorities during the year. This was 2.21 lakh or 22.67% more than those received in 2014-15.
Venkatesh Nayak of CHRI observed that considering that in 2014-15 almost a quarter of the registered public authorities failed to submit their RTI statistics, the data for 2015-16 indicates a “plateauing trend” in terms of filing of petitions.
Rejection of applications on vague grounds
While the CIC data state that public authorities rejected 6.62% of the RTI applications processed during 2015-16, Nayak said this seems to be a fall of around 1.77% from the high of 8.39% reported in 2014-15. However, in actual terms, the number still remains high at 64,666.
The CHRI has also pointed out that according to the CIC, the highest proportion of RTI applications were rejected not under the permissible exemptions under the RTI Act such as Sections 8, 9, 11 or 24 but under the mysterious category of “others”. “At 43% rejections recorded under this category, more than four out of every ten RTI applications rejected were for reasons other than those permitted by the RTI Act. The prime minister’s office is one of the public authorities that employed this device very frequently,” noted Nayak.
He elaborated that 1% of the RTIs were rejected under Section 9 (private copyright) and 7% by the 26 security and intelligence organisations partially excluded under Section 24 of the RTI Act.
Going into the appeals, Nayak said CIC has reported that there is a decrease in the number of first appeals received but increase in the number disposed by the first appellate authorities. “While this is a new positive trend, it requires deeper analysis because in previous years the proportion of first appeals has often been higher than the proportion of rejections,” he said.
Need to bring down pendency
The data released by CIC show that it disposed of 28,188 appeal and complaints cases in 2015-16, while 25,960 cases were registered during the same period. The pendency of second appeals and complaints as on April 1, 2016 stood at 34,982 cases. RTI activists believe that there is a need to bring down these numbers to ensure that the applicants are provided with information without any delays.
Considering the large number of cases in which the public authorities deny information on one ground or the other, activists are also perturbed that the imposition of penalties is not up to the mark. As Nayak said, “The CIC reports that it imposed penalties to the tune of Rs 10.52 lakh, out of which Rs 9.41 lakh was paid by the public information officers. Penalties worth Rs 1.25 lakh imposed in various cases have been stayed by various high courts.”
Stating that the CIC has reported that the amount of fees and penalties reported by public authorities has increased by 12.31% in 2015-16, Nayak said if the amount of penalty imposed is reduced from this figure, the amount of fees collected by various public authorities has actually come down from Rs 1.14 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 1.07 crore in 2016-17. “This trend seems to be at variance with the reduction in the proportion of rejections. This is because, if more people received information then logic dictates that the proportion of fees collected ought to have gone up. This would have to be the case unless the PAs have started the practice of giving information free of charge to RTI applicants. This new trend requires deeper examination,” he said.
No information on 400 public authorities that have not registered
Coming to the issue of the number of public authorities registered with the CIC for submitting their RTI statistics, the CHRI has stated that the figure of 1,903 was much lower than the highest figure of 2,333 registered in 2012-13. “More than 400 public authorities did not register with the CIC despite its perseverant efforts in 2015-16. However, the annual report states that reporting compliance from among the registered public authorities is the highest during the last 12 years at more than 94%. This is a good sign. However, the report does not throw light on the names of public authorities that did not register with the CIC. This could have been done by comparing with the data from 2012-13,” he said.
Overall, he said, while the compliance has been between 60-100% in a large number of ministries and departments that have registered with the CIC, the performance of some of them has been abysmal. “The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Ministry Overseas Indian Affairs have not reported their RTI statistics despite registering with the CIC. Only 33% of the public authorities from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways reported their RTI Stats to the CIC,” he pointed out.
RTI trends of constitutional authorities and ministries
The analysis by CHRI also reveals that while the president’s secretariat received only 123 more RTIs in 2015-16 as compared to the previous year, the proportion of rejection plummeted from 9.30% to 1.2% in 2015-16, which Nayak said was “a very significant positive trend indicating higher proportion of information disclosure”.
On the other hand, he said, in 2015-16 the PMO reported a rejection rate of 20.10% of the RTIs received. However, he said, only seven RTI applications were rejected by the PMO invoking Section 8 while a whopping 2,227 RTIs were rejected in the “others” category. With the rejections under this category in 2014-15 being 2,781, Nayak said, “This declining but nevertheless worrisome trend requires in-depth study.”
The proportion of rejection of RTIs by the Election Commission of India was extremely low, at just 0.1% in 2015-16. In comparison, the rejection of RTIs by the Supreme Court stood at 21.1%, by comptroller and auditor general at 17.2%, cabinet secretariat at 6.65% and Ministry of Personnel and Training, the nodal ministry for RTI, at 3.4%.