With RTI Cases Still Pending, Central Information Commission Announces Deadline to Clear Cases

The Central Information Commission has said that it will clear all cases filed in 2015 and 2016 by the end of this year.

Stacked pile of files. (Representative image) Credit: Reuters

Stacked pile of files. (Representative image) Credit: Reuters

In a major bid to clear pending cases, the Central Information Commission (CIC) is working to clear all appeals filed in 2015 by September 2017 and those filed in 2016 by the end of 2017.

In his inaugural remarks at a seminar titled ‘Implementation of the RTI Act’ organised by the CIC on May 19, chief information commissioner R.K. Mathur said during 2016, the CIC also disposed of 32,000 cases, which was the highest in its history. He said in the past year it has also been able to introduce an e-court system for digitising appeals, as a consequence of which 21 truckloads of shredded paper have been removed from the commission.

Noting that a large number of second appeals, filed in 2015 and later, appear to have “slipped through the crevices”, he said that the focus now, is on clearing them.

He also said that the commission is working on allowing the visibility of new cases on the internet so that the public authorities and the chief public information officers (CPIOs) are able to better interact with the staff of the concerned departments regarding their redress. “We also want the focus to shift towards delivering orders of high quality, expeditiously and fast,” he said.

The CIC is also looking to increase interaction with people by organising similar seminars. Furthermore, with the help of the Department of Personnel and Training, the CIC seeks to ensure that proper public records are maintained and staff are adequately trained.

Curb pocket pistol decisions

Information commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu, who later also conducted the proceedings along with commissioner Yashovardhan Azad, spoke about the need to curb “pocket pistol decisions” in which the lengthy and substantive arguments of one party are countered by the other, citing some Supreme Court order which need not have necessarily come in an appeal and may not be therefore relevant to the case.

The seminar also had presentations by various organisations and individuals who raised several problems and issues related to the RTI Act. Some state governments also presented their “success stories”.

Speaking of the media’s role in RTI, Sanjoy Hazarika of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said that the media needs to use the RTI Act as a tool to extract information and pointed out how Indian Express, Business Standard and Amar Ujala have been successful in this regard. Referring to how a recent report which pointed out that 22 children go missing in Delhi every day, he said, information can be used to “inform, shock and shake”.

Many deficiencies

Amrita Johri, a member of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said while 40-60 lakh RTI applications are filed each year, a survey by her organisation had revealed that most would not be required if there was proactive disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act. She said in 39% of the cases, the purpose of the applicant is fulfilled by just filing the application while in 70%, it gets fulfilled by receiving a reply. But still, there was only 45% success rate in RTI.

Johri also insisted that only 8% of applicants are women, 16% applicants file applications for redress of some grievance and that there are less than 1% frivolous or vexatious applications. She also put forth some success stories on how RTIs achieved disclosure of user charges outside all public toilets in Delhi and assisted women in obtaining widow or old age pension.

The major challenge, she noted was the growing delay in cases. “The original RTI law provided a time frame but the final law did not,” she said. Though Johri spoke about how the pendency rates in several states was very high as per a 2016 report, with Assam taking 30 years to hear an appeal, this was contested by an official from the state who said the pendency has now come down to just about 300 cases.

Anjali Bharadwaj, co-convener of NCPRI, noted that over 60% of the court and information commission orders contained deficiencies and suggested the use of a format for all orders. She said factual information, summary of a case and the decision of information commissioner should all be a part of it.

Quoting a study conducted by RAAG and Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Bharadwaj also noted with concern that over 50% of the orders were in violation of the RTI Act and were beyond the law. She said non-imposition of penalties on officers for delay in providing information has also severely hurt the RTI movement. While 59% of order listed such violations, show cause notices were issued in just 24% and penalties imposed in just 1.3% of cases.

Noted RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal demanded that a “surgical strike” be carried out to curb frivolous or vexatious applications and claimed that their number was much higher than the 1% that Johri had quoted. He suggested that raising the RTI application fee from Rs 10 to Rs 50, coming out with RTI stamps and making identity proof necessary would not only curb appeals filed under assumed names, but would also prevent losses to postal authorities. He said that someone had impersonated him once to ask for information about the number of people from Rajasthan posted in Delhi government hospitals. He was served a legal notice of Rs 50 lakh once owing to such a false application.

Venkatesh Nayak of CHRI made a presentation on “some conflicting developments in the RTI jurisprudence” which focused on how the Supreme Court and high courts have been delivering contradicting judgments on almost all important issues. There are in fact, differing judgments even on whether governors, the attorney general of India or temples are public authorities. Similarly, he said, while schools and high courts have right to privacy, citizens do not as per the Centre’s submission in the Aadhaar matter before the Supreme Court.

Some success stories from the states

Among the success stories which were revealed at the seminar, one was by Pankti Jog of Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel who spoke about how her organisation has promoted RTI use by starting a helpline which has received 4.61 calls from 20 states so far. The helpline addresses the queries of both users and PIOs and appellate authorities. The organisation also operates a legal clinic to answer the queries of applicants. This has helped to improve both the quality of applications and the number of proactive disclosures by the public authorities.

In case of Karnataka, it was pointed out that a major reform has been initiated through implementation of the RTI Act in Stamps and Registration Department of the state. B.H. Veeresha of Mahithi Hakku Adhyayana Kendra said due to it, the proactive disclosures of the department are now much higher than those of any other.

Similarly, in the case of UP a presentation was made by Rajesh Mehtani on how after new rules were notified in December 2015, a major training programme was undertaken which has since covered 8,000 of the 18,000 information officers in the state. However, some participants criticised and booed the state for only giving dates in second appeals, not entertaining the applicants properly and not even filing a single annual report till date.

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