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New Delhi: During the COVID-19 pandemic in its first year in 2020, which saw a migrant exodus in India, various ministries continued to reject a large number of applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, citing vague reasons, an analysis of the Central Information Commission’s (CIC) annual report has revealed.
The RTI queries ranged from issues on production and availability of medicines, injections and vaccines to the distress among migrant workers and food security.
While there was a 2.95% drop in the RTI applications filed across central public authorities during the year, there was a significant rise in the number of rejections by the ministries as well.
Transparency advocate and human rights activist Venkatesh Nayak, in his analysis, said that the ministries chose newer and hitherto unused reasons to reject applications. The reasons ranged from national security exemption to information pertaining to Cabinet papers.
“The Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution rejected 401 RTI applications in the pandemic year by invoking the national security exemption provided in Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. Overall, the use of the national security exemption to reject RTI applications increased by more than 83% during the year,” Nayak said.
“The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare employed several exemption clauses, including the exemption to Cabinet papers, which it hardly used in the past, to reject scores of RTI applications in 2020-21,” he further said.
He added, “The number of rejections by the Ministry of Labour and Employment doubled under Section 24 of the RTI Act, which says ‘nothing contained in this Act shall apply to the intelligence and security organisations’. However, the ministry doesn’t have any intelligence or security organisation under its jurisdiction.”
Even the state governments rejected scores of RTI applications, with Delhi rejecting the highest proportion of cases. “Delhi recorded more than 644% increase in the number of rejections of RTI applications during the pandemic year compared with its performance in 2019-20, when the proportion of rejections was only 1.79% of the total number of RTI applications processed that year,” the analysis revealed.
“The Ministry of Steel recorded a 2,457% increase in the number of rejections – from only 14 cases in 2019-20 to 358 cases in 2020-21; the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution reported a 2,003% rise in rejections – from 26 cases in 2019-20 to 547 cases during the pandemic year; the Ministry of Railways reported more than 767% rise in the number of rejections in the pandemic year – from 84 cases in 2019-20 to 729 in 2020-21; and the Ministry of External Affairs recorded a 356% rise in rejections – from 198 cases in 2019-20 to 904 cases in the first year of the pandemic.”
In the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 727 RTI applications were rejected in 2020-21 compared to 412 applications in 2019-20. In the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the number of rejections rose from 129 in 2019-20 to 213 in the pandemic year. The Ministry of Power reported 159 rejections in 2020-21 compared to 102 in 2019-20.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment – which had a very critical role to play during the pandemic year – also reported a significant rise in the number of rejections in 2020-21. At least 375 cases were rejected in the pandemic year compared to 368 in 2019-20. In the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 60 cases were rejected in 2020-21 compared to 44 in 2019-20, and in the Prime Minister’s Office, the rejections went up from 58 in 2019-20 to 82 in the first year of the pandemic.
The ‘others’ category used to reject applications
Nayak’s analysis also revealed that several ministries, departments and public authorities used the “others” category as the reason for rejecting RTI applications.
However, he added, while a large number ministries, departments and public authorities reported a significant decline in the use of “others” category to reject RTI applications, several other ministries and public authorities reported a “significant increase” in the use of this category.
The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation reported a 1,410% increase; the Ministry of External Affairs recorded a 537% increase; the Comptroller and Auditor General saw a nearly three-fold increase; the Ministry of Labour and Employment saw a sharp rise from 1,871 cases in 2019-20 to 2,429 cases during the pandemic year; and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution too reported an over 30% jump from 64 cases in 2019-20 to 88 cases in 2020-21.
He further pointed out that the CIC has not bothered to examine the continued use of the “others” category to reject RTI applications, year after year.
Section on individual privacy invoked the most to deny information
The analysis noted that Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, which protects personal information of an individual and prohibits disclosure that may cause unwarranted invasion of the individual’s privacy, was used most frequently during the pandemic year to deny information under the RTI Act. “The central level public authorities invoked this clause to reject 34.44% of the RTI applications in 2020-21 – a marginal increase from the 2019-20 figure of 34.01%,” he said.
The Ministry of External Affairs reported a five-fold increase in the use of Section 8(1)(j) – up from 107 cases in 2019-20 to 681 cases in 2020-21. The Ministry of Steel invoked this section in 199 cases in 2020-21 compared to two cases in 2019-20, while the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution used this exemption in 142 cases in 2020-21 compared to 18 cases in the previous year. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare used it in 184 cases during the pandemic year as against 107 cases in 2019-20.
Exemption given to security agencies used in many cases
The analysis also highlighted how the use of Section 24 – under which the Union government has exempted 25 security and intelligence organisations from ordinary obligations of transparency under the RTI Act unlike other public authorities – grew.
While public authorities are required to disclose information related to allegations of corruption and human rights violations, Section 24 constituted 27.92% of the rejections in 2020-21 – an increase by more than 5.6% over the proportion reported in 2019-20 (22.31%).
The Intelligence Bureau and the Central Paramilitary Forces like Assam Rifles, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Central Reserve Police Force, Central Industrial Security Force etc. – all come under the Union home ministry – reported the use of Section 24 to reject 75.4% of RTI applications during the pandemic year.
Overall, there was a 166% increase in the use of this exemption by public authorities under the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2020-21 (7,631 cases) as compared to 2019-20 (2,869 cases). “The CIC is silent about this development in the narrative portion of the annual report,” Nayak said.
Rejection of RTI cases rose sharply in Delhi
While the Delhi administration had rejected only 211 RTI applications in 2019-20, it rejected 1,635 cases during the pandemic year. Nayak reiterated that the CIC is silent about this significant development in the narrative portion of its annual report.
In the case of Puducherry, the analysis said it was the only union territory which reported a marginal increase in rejections in 2020-21 – from 116 in 2019-20 to 132 in 2020-21. All other union territories reported a significant decline in the rejection rate.
Lakshadweep did not report any rejection despite receiving 40.14% more RTI applications during the pandemic year as compared with 2019-20.
Despite receiving more than 1,600 RTI applications, Jammu and Kashmir rejected only six cases, all of which were under the “others” category.
Reacting to the manner in which the rejections took place, Nayak said, “It is not possible to predict whether even a significant fraction of these cases will land up at the CIC in the form of appeals and complaints. So there is a strong reason for the CIC to hold consultations with such ministries and also public authorities under their jurisdiction to examine this trend and explore the correctness of such decisions to deny access to information.”