at-15-rti-act-crippled-by-rising-backlog

Context: A report card has been brought out by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan and the Centre for Equity Studies to mark the 15th anniversary of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
[Syllabus Relevance: GS Mains Paper-2: Governance: Transparency & Accountability]

Key findings of the report card:

  • Pending cases: 
    • More than 2.2 lakh RTI cases are pending at the Central and State Information Commissions, which are the final courts of appeal under the RTI law.
    • Maharashtra had the highest number of pending appeals, with over 59,000 cases, followed by Uttar Pradesh (47,923) and the CIC (35,653).
  • Rate of disposal: At the current rate of disposal, the Odisha Commission would take more than seven years to dispose of all pending complaints, while the CIC would take more than two years.
  • Vacancies of information commissioners: Despite Supreme Court orders to fill all vacancies, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has no chief, and only five commissioners. 
    • Odisha is functioning with just four commissioners, while Rajasthan has only three. Jharkhand and Tripura have no commissioners at all, and have been defunct for months. 
    • The State Information Commissions of Jharkhand and Tripura are defunct in the absence of any information commissioners.
    • Under the law, every commission should have a chief and up to 10 commissioners.
  • Impunity: The government officials face hardly any punishment for violating the law. Penalties were imposed in only 2.2% of cases that were disposed of.

RTI Act 2005: 

  • Right to Information Act 2005 mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information, barring a few exempted categories such as information which might affect the sovereignty of the country or private information which might have a bearing on a person’s right to privacy.

Authorities under RTI Act

  • The Central Information Commission (CIC) is set up under the Right to Information Act.
  • The Chief Information Commissioner heads the Central Information Commission.
    • This body hears appeals from persons who have not been satisfied by the public authority, and also addresses major issues related to the RTI Act.
  • Information Commissions at the Centre and in the States are the final adjudicators empowered to act against violations of the legislation. 
  • Appointment: The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners are appointed by the President on the recommendation of a committee consisting of—
    • The Prime Minister, who shall be the Chairperson of the committee;
    • The Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha; and
    • A Union Cabinet Minister to be nominated by the Prime Minister.
  • Tenure: In the case of the Information Commissioners they are appointed for five years subject to the age limit of 65 years. 

Process of RTI complaint:

  • When the initial request for information made to a public information officer, designated by each public authority, fail, the petitioner is entitled to lodge an appeal to an authority within the department concerned. 
  • When that fails too, a further appeal can be made to the office of the CIC or the State Information Commission.

Significance of RTI Act: 

  • The right to information has been upheld by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right flowing from Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees every citizen the right to free speech and expression. 
  • Without access to relevant information, people’s ability to formulate opinions and express themselves meaningfully is curtailed. 
  • The RTI law has been used by people to seek information to actively participate in decision-making processes and hold governments accountable.
  • It empowers citizens to access their basic rights and entitlements, especially in the absence of effective grievance redress mechanisms to address service delivery failures. 

Performance of RTI:

  • Transparency and accountability: Every year nearly six million applications are filed under the RTI Act, making it the most extensively used transparency legislation in the world. 
  • During the COVID-19 crisis too, the law has been widely used to seek important information. It includes information about availability of medical facilities to hold government departments accountable for delivery of foodgrains and social security benefits meant for those in distress, including migrant workers.
  • Light on corruption and arbitrary abuse of power
    • Information has been accessed about the anonymous electoral bonds through which thousands of crores have been channelled into political parties. 
    • The Prime Minister’s Office has been queried about the expenditure of the PM CARES Fund set up to provide relief during disasters like the current pandemic.

Concerns: 

  • RTI amendments: Earlier the Information Commissioner and CIC were made on a par with the Election Commissioner and the CEC, respectively. But the government removed this statutory protection.
    • The government pushed the RTI (Amendment) Act, 2019 which allows the Central government to determine the tenure and salaries of all Information Commissioners, which hampers their independence.
  • The non-appointment of commissioners in the Information Commissions in a timely manner leads to a large build-up of pending appeals and complaints.
  • Non-imposition of penalties in deserving cases by commissions promotes a culture of impunity among public authorities.
  • The Commissioners are appointed by the State government, there is a conflict of interest when queries are posed to them. They tend to be pro-government.
  • RTI and Coronavirus crisis: If the poor and marginalised affected by the public health emergency are to have any hope of obtaining the benefits of government schemes, they must have access to relevant information.
  • At a time when incentives for secrecy are great, and the scope for discretionary actions wide, the role of information commissions is crucial to ensure that people can obtain information on healthcare facilities, social security programs and delivery of essential goods and services meant for those in distress.

Practice Question for Mains
Question. Do you think that Central Information Commission should be made a Constitutional Authority? [150 words]

Image source: TOI

After reading this article, answer the following question for Mains answer writing practice. Also you can get your answer checked free of cost by clicking on the following link.

For Mains:https://www.jatinverma.org/home/typepost/dailymainsanswerwriting

Q) Critically analyse the performance of the RTI Act. Mention its significance and related concerns.  (250 words)