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15 Years of RTI

  • 12 Oct 2020
  • 8 min read

Why in News

A report by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan and the Centre for Equity Studies has pointed out that more than 2.2 lakh Right to information cases are pending at the Central and State Information Commissions (ICs), which are the final courts of appeal under the RTI Act, 2005.

Key Points

  • Unavailability during Covid-19 lockdown: Out of the total 29 ICs that were studied, 21 were not holding any hearings.
    • Even the websites of 3 ICs -Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland -were not accessible during the lockdown.
    • Websites of 11 commissions out of 29, had no information/notification about the functioning of the IC during the lockdown.
  • Reduced Capacity: Of the 29 ICs, two ICs -Jharkhand and Tripura -were found to have no commissioners for varying lengths of time. They were completely defunct.
    • 4 were functioning without a Chief Information Commissioner -Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
    • Under the RTI 2005 act, every commission should have a chief and up to 10 commissioners.
  • Delays and Backlogs: The assessment found that on average, the CIC takes 388 days (more than one year) to dispose of an appeal/complaint from the date that it was filed before the commission.
    • The highest number of pending appeals, with over 59,000 cases were in Maharashtra, followed by Uttar Pradesh and the Central Information Commissions (CIC).
  • No Penalties: The report found that the Government officials face hardly any punishment for violating the law.
    • Penalties were imposed in only 2.2% of cases that were disposed of, despite previous analysis showing a rate of about 59% violations which should have triggered the process of penalty imposition.

Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019

  • It provided that the Chief Information Commissioner and an Information Commissioner (of Centre as well as States) shall hold office for such term as prescribed by the Central Government. Before this amendment, their term was fixed for 5 years.
  • It provided that the salary, allowances and other service conditions of the Chief Information Commissioner and an Information Commissioner (of Centre as well as States) shall be such as prescribed by the Central Government.
    • Before this amendment, the salary, allowances and other service conditions of the Chief Information Commissioner were similar to those of the Chief Election Commissioner and that of an Information Commissioner were similar to those of an Election Commissioner (State Election Commissioners in case of States).
  • It removed the provisions regarding deductions in salary of the Chief Information Commissioner, an Information Commissioner, the State Chief Information Commissioner and a State Information Commissioner due to pension or any other retirement benefits received by them for their previous government service.
  • The RTI (Amendment) Act, 2019 was criticized on grounds of diluting the law and giving more powers to the central government.

Central Information Commission

  • Established: The Central Information Commission was established by the Central Government in 2005, under the provisions of the Right to Information Act (2005). It is not a constitutional body.
  • Members: The Commission consists of a Chief Information Commissioner and not more than ten Information Commissioners.
    • At present (2019), the Commission has six Information Commissioners apart from the Chief Information Commissioner.
  • Appointment: They are appointed by the President on the recommendation of a committee consisting of the Prime Minister as Chairperson, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a Union Cabinet Minister nominated by the Prime Minister.
  • Tenure: The Chief Information Commissioner and an Information Commissioner shall hold office for such term as prescribed by the Central Government or until they attain the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier.
    • They are not eligible for reappointment.
  • Power and Functions of CIC
    • It is the duty of the Commission to receive and inquire into a complaint from any person regarding information request under RTI, 2005.
    • The Commission can order an inquiry into any matter if there are reasonable grounds (suo-moto power).
    • While inquiring, the Commission has the powers of a civil court in respect of summoning, requiring documents etc.

Suggestions

  • The government must ensure the timely appointment of chiefs and members of ICs.
    • The increasing backlog of cases is exacerbated by the fact that most Commissions are functioning at reduced capacity.
  • It is absolutely critical that all information commissions conduct timely and effective hearings and disposal of cases to ensure people can exercise their fundamental right to information.
    • Commissions should hold hearings telephonically. Where possible, video calls can be set up.
  • There should be a prioritization of cases dealing with information related to life and liberty. Information regarding matters like food distribution, social security, health and COVID 19-related issues should be proactively disclosed.
    • Section 7(1) of the RTI Act states that information concerning the life or liberty of a person has to be supplied within 48 hours of the request being received.
    • Section 4 of the RTI Act requires suo motu disclosure of information by each public authority.
  • Urgent digitization of records and proper record management is important as lack of remote access to records in the lockdown has been widely cited as the reason for not being able to conduct hearings of appeals and complaints by commissions.
    • Governments should put in place a mechanism for online filing of RTI applications.

Way Forward

  • The role of information commissions is crucial during Covid-19 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.
  • 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.
  • Democracy is all about the governance of the people, by the people and for the people. In order to achieve the third paradigm, the state needs to start acknowledging the importance of informed public and the role that it plays in the country’s development as a nation. In this context, underlying issues related to RTI Act should be resolved, so that it can serve the information needs of society.

Source: TH

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