Can Changes to RTI Act Make Information Commissions Citizen-friendly?

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The amendments to the RTI Act can affect the functioning of the Information Commissions.

As the RTI Act completes 14 years of its implementation, citizens shall ensure that RTI is used effectively to make the government more accountable, efficient and responsive.

Shikha Chhibbar | Caravan Daily

THE passing of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005 was hailed as a major empowering tool for the citizens of India to get information from the public authorities at a minimum effort. The RTI Act received Presidential assent on June 15, 2005 and became fully operational on October 12, 2005. The Act required the formation of Information Commission at, both, the Central and state level for hearing complaints against the decision of the Public Information Officers.

The current government has amended the RTI Act by the RTI (Amendment) Bill 2019 which provides that the terms of office, salaries and other terms and conditions of service of central and state information commissioners “shall be such as may be prescribed by the central government.” After being passed in Lok Sabha on July 22, 2019, this RTI (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on July 25, 2019. After receiving the President’s assent on August 1, 2019, the bill became law.

These amendments to the RTI Act can affect the functioning of the Information Commissions. When citizens do not get information from the public authorities they appeal to Information Commissions for it, seeking accountability and transparency in the functioning of the government. In such a scenario, appointment of Independent candidates as Information Commissioners is very crucial. The amendments shall not blow away citizens’ trust in these autonomous institutions.

There is also an urgent requirement to strengthen the functioning of the Information Commissions. It has been noted that these bodies have taken a serious hit over the years. The intent of setting these up was to provide an independent forum to RTI applicants to file a complaint or second appeal without the complex technicalities of courts. But over the years, Information Commissions have started to resemble civil courts.  Their infrastructure is designed like regular courts with Information Commissioners being seated at high pedestals.

RTI applicants could be allowed to file a complaint or a second appeal through a simple letter mentioning all the details of the matter clearly. But, according to the prescribed RTI rules in various states and at the Centre, there has to be a proper format for filing second appeal, with requirements of submitting two to three copies of several documents. Effectively, they are compelling the appellants to take the help of trained RTI activists or professional lawyers to be able to file the appeals in the Information Commissions.

Elaborate processes, high costs and the long-winding disputes are preventing the RTI applicants from filing complaints or second appeals in the Information Commissions. The Central government may be attempting to herald  principles of ‘maximum governance, minimum government’, but for an ordinary RTI applicant, coming to the Central Information Commission with the second appeal often means getting harassed by waiting for the case to even get listed.

Appellant files the second appeal with an expectation that the cases may get disposed-off in three to four months; but it may take more than a year to get their case listed in Central Information Commission. Moreover, response time of Information Commissions to the second appeal application is appalling. According to the Annual report of 2017-18 of Central Information Commission, registration of the cases at Central Information Commission during 2017-18 was total 25815 cases, disposal of the cases was 29005 and pending cases for disposal as on 1st April 2018 was 23541 cases. Though these pending numbers are too large, there is huge backlog of cases in high courts as well. Disposal of cases within a few months can ensure a greater accountability and confidence in these institutions of transparency.

Another factor which prevents citizens from approaching Information Commissions with second appeal is the high cost associated with the process. Many RTI appellants may simply give up the case midway as they cannot continue to pursue the information they seek because of the costs embedded in attending each hearing and eventually their case may get dismissed for non-appearance. When appellants are fighting the case to get some crucial information and they do not get the order for disclosure of information from the Information Commission, they may not be prepared to take up the case to the high court. This is because approaching a lawyer can be an expensive proposition for many people and they may drop the matter after second appeal.

Even when the order may go in the favour of the appellant, taking six months to a year for doing so is very long. Delays could be due to varied reasons. There are a few Information Commissions where the Information Commissioners sit for hearing for only one or two hours a day. Then, there can be delays if the Information Commissioner has retired as the case has to be reheard. Apart from this, sometimes Public Information Officers come unprepared to the hearings which may result in adjournments and as a result the case drags on for months.

Moreover, there are certain practices in the Information Commissions which entirely depend on the presiding Information commissioner. For instance, the current State Chief Information Commissioner of Uttar Pradesh seeks the second appeal only in written form and does not even allow the appellant to speak during the hearing. There may be several cases where the appellant finds it difficult to understand the correspondence made by the Information Commission due to barrier of language. For example, the notice of hearing issued in the Central Information Commission is in English only. It is unfair that Information Commissioners are insisting upon adopting such practices which are making them look like courts, thus defeating the purpose for which the Information Commissions were established. It is high time for the Information Commissions to necessarily become citizen-friendly.

Easy access to information is the key to participatory democracy. It is not just access to information which is of supreme importance, but also protection of these institutions which ensure transparency and accountability to build an informed citizenry. Autonomy of Information commissioners is critical to ensuring access to information. RTI activists have been fighting a continuous battle with the government to ensure independence of the Central and State Information Commissions. If Information Commissions are not autonomous, it may eventually lead to death of RTI.

The ruling government of the country has been re-elected on the election promise of corruption-free governance. The RTI Act seeks to achieve transparency and good-governance which empowers even the most marginalised sections of the society with information. In such a scenario government’s focus shall be to protect right to information of its citizens by strengthening the functioning of the Information Commissions and upholding their independence.

Replying to the debate on the RTI  Act amendment, DoPT minister Dr. Jitendra Singh claimed that this amendment has been brought in ‘good faith’ and this will help to ‘strengthen the RTI Act’. Since the amendments to the RTI Act were brought without any prior public consultations, it is now essential for the government to demonstrate how allowing the central government to decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of the Information Commissioners at the centre and states will make Information Commissions more citizen-friendly. As the RTI Act completes 14 years of its implementation on October 12, 2019, citizens shall ensure that RTI is used effectively to make the government more accountable, efficient and responsive.

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Shikha Chhibbar is a Human Rights Lawyer working in CHRI, Delhi. Her work is mainly focused on field level research and trainings on RTI and police reforms. The views expressed here are author’s personal.

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