Delay in Replies to Appeals and Complaints Killing RTI Movement, Warn Activists

Legal notice sent to Maharashtra SIC says in place of maximum 45 days, mostly replies took one to three years.

New Delhi: Exasperated by the tardy pace of disposal of cases filed under the Right to Information Act and delays in the furnishing of replies to the second appeals, RTI activists in Maharashtra have now served a legal notice to the State Information Commission to lay out a roadmap to ensure timely reply to queries and disposal of cases.

Coming under the banner of RTI Katta, the activists have cited various Supreme Court and high court rulings in support of their demand that replies to second appeals should be furnished within 45 days. The activists cautioned that if these directives are not followed, they would be compelled to take “appropriate legal remedies in a court of law in the interest of justice.”

One of the signatories of the notice, former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, told The Wire that though Information Commissions were created to be the guardians of RTI, most have shown “scant responsibility to safeguarding the citizen’s fundamental right”.

“A primary reason for the RTI Act going through a stagnation phase is the indefinite waiting periods at the various Information Commissions. A law which promised to get the citizen his fundamental right to information within 30 days is being made useless by the Information Commissions, where second appeals hibernate for one-three years very often,” he lamented.

RTI activist and former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi. Photo: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Over 58,000 cases pending in Maharashtra

In the case of Maharashtra, he said, the transparency movement was “suffering grievously since RTI appeals and complaints are languishing in the Information Commissions for over a year and more.” With the commission not adhering to timelines and not pushing for time-bound delivery of information, he said, the pendency of cases has crossed 58,000.

The notice is also signed by Vijay Kumbhar, founder of RTI Katta; journalist Vinita Deshmukh; Vivek Velankar and Jugal Rathi of the NGO Sajag Nagrik Manch; Bhaskar Prabhu of the NGO Mahiti Adhikar Manch; and RTI activist Mohammed Afzal. It has been served on the state’s chief information commissioner.

It noted that both the high court of Calcutta in the 2010 case of Akhil Kumar Roy vs The West Bengal Information Commission and the high court of Karnataka in the 2015 writ petition of Jayaprakash Reddy ruled that in the spirit of the RTI Act, the commissions must dispose of second appeals within 45 days.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court, through its ruling in Kusum Ingots & Alloys Ltd versus Union of India held that these rulings apply to the entire country.

Also read: Who’s Afraid of the RTI Act?

Provision of penalty exists to avoid delays in providing information

The notice also reminded the Maharashtra SIC that “the legislative intent of the Parliament of India’s behind the enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005 was that, the citizens of India should get information in a time bound manner within 30 days of making an application under section 6(1) of the Act.”

It said to uphold this aspect, parliament also prescribed a penalty of Rs 250 per day up to a maximum of Rs 25,000 for any delay in providing the requested information. It said: “That it is in the same spirit of providing information to the citizens of India in a time bound manner that the appeals u/s. 19(1) are mandated to be disposed of within 30 days from the date of receipt thereof or within such extended period not exceeding a total of 45 days from the date of filing thereof, as the case may be, for reasons to be recorded in writing.”

Referring to inordinate delays of over a year in answering second appeals, the notice said, in such a scenario “this entire time bound scheme of the Act is abruptly lost in the wilderness and makes it go totally adrift resulting in a grave miscarriage of justice and undermines the faith of the people of India in the participatory democracy which requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information.”

Calcutta HC said sparkle of speed shouldn’t be lost

In the Calcutta HC ruling, the notice recalled how it was held that “the sparkle of a strong strand of speed woven through the sections of the Act is abruptly lost in the second appeal that has been allowed to run wild” and that “the second appellate authority should have decided the second appeal within 45 days from the date of filing thereof.”

Similarly, the Karnataka ruled that “since there is a time limit prescribed for deciding a first appeal, it would be safe to conclude that a similar period would apply insofar as deciding the second appeal, for otherwise, it would lead to a situation where the object of the Act is not achieved if the authority should indefinitely postpone the hearing and decision of a second appeal.” It also added in its order that “consequently, it would be deemed that the second appeal would also have to be decided within a period of 45 days if not earlier, from the date of filing.”

SC noted that orders are applicable to the entire country

The Supreme Court’s ruling, the notice said, noted in para 22 that, “An order passed on writ petition questioning the constitutionality of a Parliamentary Act whether interim or final keeping in view the provisions contained in Clause (2) of Article 226 of the Constitution of India, will have effect throughout the territory of India subject of course to the applicability of the Act.”

A view of Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Thus, the notice said, these rulings have “applicability to the Second Appeal decisions of the Maharashtra State Information Commission”. It thus urged the commission “to dispose of the second appeal filed before it within 45 days from the date of filing” and to come out with a “detailed roadmap” on disposal of second appeal and complaints within a “reasonable time period”.

Report revealed most commissions were late in deciding appeals

Incidentally, a ‘Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2018-19’ prepared by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES) last year had pointed out how most Information Commissions were delaying deciding appeals and complaints and were also not imposing penalties to deter information officers from delaying responses.

The report had stated that in the state information commissions of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, the waiting time for the disposal of cases was 18 years and 7.4 years on average respectively.

Suggesting an “agenda for action”, it had suggested that an agreement should be reached on the maximum amount of time in which an appeal or complaint should be dealt with.

While being critical of the SICs for delaying disposal of cases, the report also noted that many states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal were functioning with less than the sanctioned number of information commissioners. In the case of Maharashtra, it said the number of pending appeals and complaints had crossed 46,000 on March 31, 2019.