At a recent seminar, a number of stakeholders sought wide-ranging reforms to ensure that the RTI Act remains an effective tool for ordinary people to access information with.
In light of growing support against the RTI Act within the present dispensation (which sees it as a UPA legacy), a retired senior bureaucrat recently observed at a seminar that the Act needs to be preserved as an effective tool to ensure accountability.
At a discussion organised by the Research, Assessment and Analysis Group (RaaG), Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), the bureaucrat said that at the moment, RTI applications are seen as a “nuisance” by a large number of officials.
However, RTI being the only tool an ordinary citizen can access information with, the bureaucrat suggested that the media should be involved in the process of ensuring accountability and said the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) should be made to realise that it is the only way forward. He also suggested that a list of deficiencies towards implementing the Act in states should be sent to the state chief secretary regularly by the Central Information Commission (CIC) for necessary corrective action.
Chief information commissioner R. K. Mathur said a committee constituted by the DoPT has failed to ensure that all the ministries mention RTI implementation in their annual reports. Given that 70-80% of all RTI applications arise from personal grievances, he said it would help if the ministries start opening up their own files to aid the flow of information. “It would amount to proactive disclosure to the applicant,” he said.
In several cases, when people are not satisfied with the replies, second appeals are filed which increase the burden of appeals. This becomes counterproductive when only a certain category of privileged and educated people have their second appeals addressed. Thus, he said, prompt disclosure would help the masses.
Stating that most officers do not maintain proper records, Mathur urged every public information officer to maintain records of the cases handled by them to ensure better continuity in operations.
Former chief justice of the Delhi high court Justice A.P. Shah suggested that the commission refer to “supportive judgments” to better comply with Section 4 of the RTI Act. “If despite the order, a department does not comply, you can go to the high court,” he said.
Justice Shah also suggested that information commissions use the services of lawyers and law students as “law clerks” to help draft orders and to make documents legally sound. This, he said, would address the problem of the commission’s orders not being legally tenable, as has been pointed out by the RAAG-SNS report titled ‘Tilting the Balance of Power: Adjudicating the RTI Act.’ To this effect, he said that every information commissioner undergo a short legal education programme.
Furthermore, he said that penalties should be imposed selectively. “We should not have a penalty regime, but few orders with heavy penalties”.
A number of past and present information commissioners also spoke at the meet. Central information commissioner Yashovardhan Azad brought up the issue of courts striking down penalties imposed by commissioners and pointed to instances when the high court declared such orders “ultra vires”. He also referred to a flood of vexatious appeals and demanded that a mechanism be devised to deal with frivolous applications which seek volumes of information.
Former chief information commissioner M.L. Sharma wanted the Centre to place more resources with the information commissions. He also suggested that the powers of the commissions be rethought, since all they can do in matters of Section 4 violations is make suggestions. “Section 4 is too weak a law and it should be made more specific,” he said, adding that as of now the “commissions are helpless in enforcing their orders.”
Vinson Paul, chief information commissioner of Kerala pointed out that commissions were suffering delays in appointments. While seven posts for information commissioners were vacant in Kerala, he was the only one in office. As a consequence, the number of pending cases had risen to 13,000 cases.
In Kashmir, only 80 of the 300 public authorities surveyed took to proactive disclosure under Section 4. “In our state, many of the departments do not even have their own websites,” the chief information commissioner for Kashmir said, suggesting that the CIC should engage the states by meeting chief secretaries on a regular basis.
Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said heavier penalities had not helped in Karnataka as the number of petitions and instances of non-compliance have also registered an increase. He also noted that the Committee of Secretaries had, in a regressive decision, diluted provisions that sought to make heads of departments responsible for violations of the Act.
Shekhar Singh, founder of NCPRI, said India was the land of a thousand parliaments with different institutions passing orders at their own discretion. The same discretion, he said, was responsible for non-compliance with Section 4 regulations.
Quoting from an NCPRI report, he said the solution lay in compensating those seeking information, issuing notices to public authorities for non-compliance, penalising the heads of departments and making public the information disclosed.
NCPRI also suggested that the penalty for performance deficiencies should be exposed by the media and legal remedies should be resorted to when necessary.