Government

Centre Wants to Curb People’s Power to Seek Information, Allege RTI Activists

Union minister Jitendra Singh’s suggestion that only those linked with an issue should be allowed to file an RTI application on it is being seen as an attempt to stifle the transparency movement.

Union minister Jitendra Singh. Credit: PTI

Union minister Jitendra Singh. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Union minister Jitendra Singh’s suggestion at the annual convention of the Central Information Commission on Wednesday (December 6) that a person who files an application under the Right to Information Act must have a connection with the issue has not gone down well with activists, who see the move as another attempt by the Centre to muzzle the information and transparency movement.

Speaking at the event held at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi, Singh suggested several ways of reducing the number of pending cases in the commission. “To reduce pendency we can also devise a mechanism. Most of our information is already available on public domain, then why file an RTI. Many a times even Appointments Committee of the Cabinet orders have been put on the website even before they have reached the officer. Secondly, we can reduce at least those RTIs for which the answers have already been furnished. A former CIC said there are 36,000 RTIs that were pending, I said there were 36,003 as three had been filed about his appointment.”

But what has irked the activists is his attempt at toying with the central theme of the RTI. Singh said in his speech that “we should try to respect the spirit with which this law has been brought in instead of making it a nuisance. Maybe we should have a mechanism that if an RTI is filed, the person filing it should have something to do with the issue. It should not be that I file an RTI about someone unknown or for proving oneself just as a professional RTI activist. This would reduce the pressure and the load on the mechanism.”

Minister’s assertion faulty as no reason required for seeking information

Responding to the assertion of Union minister of state for Department of Personnel and Training, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said it strongly disagreed with the suggestion as section 6(2) specifically states that a person seeking information is not required to give any reason for it. “Any move to introduce conditions to restrict RTI applications to only those issues on which a person is directly connected will not just be illegal but will also empower public information officers to arbitrarily reject any RTI application on the pretext that it does not relate to the information seeker.”

Further, the Campaign said it was surprising that the minister made these statements in the context of people seeking information on the process of appointment of information commissioners. “In recent months the Supreme Court has set aside appointments of information commissioners in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala as due process was not followed in appointments,” it recalled.

Minister silent on existing vacancies

A statement by the NCPRI also noted how vacancies in the commission still exist.

“The minister recounted that the BJP government had filled all the vacancies in the CIC and the CIC functioned at full capacity of 11 commissioners. However, currently there are three vacancies in the CIC with the first one occurring in December 2016. These vacancies have arisen out of routine retirement of information commissions. Despite the passage of more than 11 months, the government has not made any appointments of the information commissioners.”

The group said even a representation sent to the prime minister on the issue was converted to a grievance and registered on the grievance portal, which was subsequently shown as ‘disposed’. It said it was “disappointed to note that the minister did not make any reference to the current vacancies and did not state in how much time the vacancies will be filled”.

Stating that a fourth vacancy will arise in January 2018 when another sitting commissioner is due to retire, the NCPRI urged the government to immediately appoint the information commissioners to fill the existing vacancies in a transparent manner.

Incidentally, NCPRI had earlier this year also highlighted through a seminar how the RTI Act was burdened by infrastructural deficiencies and gradually becoming ineffective.

Meanwhile, in view of the application filing mechanism going completely online, co-convenor of NCPRI Anjali Bhardwaj also questioned whether 70% of the population of the country, that doesn’t have access to the internet, does not have the right to information.

PM lets down RTI movement 

She also asked why the RTI Act should not be used to access information about the Information Commission and its functioning. “After all, ICs are also public authorities and there must be transparency in their functioning. The lack of transparency in the appointment of information commissioners has been a matter of grave concern. In fact, the courts have had to strike down appointments of several ICs,” she said.

The activist also found the approach of the prime minister towards the RTI movement quite disappointing as he did not attend the CIC convention, which for the first ten years was consistently being attended by the PM. “(It is) extremely disappointing that the PM again did not attend the convention. The PM’s presence sends the signal that the government is not serious about the RTI Act. For the first ten years of the RTI Act, till 2013, the PM attended every convention,” she said.