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Drive to speed up information access

New Delhi, July 8: Denied government files and documents could soon be accessed much faster under the Right to Information Act, with the law’s guardians set to double.

Nearly two years after the act — and its watchdog, the Central Information Commission — were born, fears of the panel becoming little more than an ordinary trial court are driving plans to expand it to its maximum size.

The CIC is about to enter talks with the Centre to seek six more information commissioners to add to the five now tasked with ensuring that government offices follow India’s transparency law in letter and spirit.

Sources in the department of personnel and training, which along with the Prime Minister’s Office will represent the Centre in the talks, said the CIC’s wish was likely to be granted.

The expansion to 11 commissioners will significantly reduce the time a complainant has to wait before his case comes up for hearing.

At present, the workload is distributed between chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah and four colleagues.

The information law, though, allows for a maximum of 10 central information commissioners apart from the chief.

“If the appellant has to wait months for a hearing, the purpose of the act is defeated. On an average, the waiting time should halve with the expansion,” Habibullah told The Telegraph.

Under the law, a government office has a maximum of 45 days to reply to a citizen’s demand for information. If the appellant is not satisfied with the reply, or does not receive any reply, he can approach an appellate authority within the government department. If the appellate authority’s response is not satisfactory, the appellant can complain to the CIC.

The act, which experts who framed it say was meant for “timed” disclosure of information, however, does not mention any time frame within which the CIC has to dispose of a case.

“With our current strength of five information commissioners, we can dispose a maximum of about 600 cases a month. Often, we have over a thousand cases a month, which is impossible to deal with currently,” Habibullah said.

When the CIC was formed, it was believed five commissioners would be enough as the commission was only meant to hear cases where the information seeker was denied at two rungs.

Since 2005, when the CIC came into existence, the backlog of its cases has increased each month (see chart) in a pattern that mimics the predicament of courts in India.

Ironically, the talks between the CIC and the Centre will take place in the backdrop of the commission’s best monthly performance.

In June, the CIC for the first time disposed of more cases than it received, reducing its backlog, though the number of cases that it received was lower than the preceding months of the year.

Through 2006, the number of cases the CIC disposed of in a month fluctuated between 200 and 400, crossing 500 only in December.

This year though has seen a marked improvement, which Habibullah ascribes to the smoother functioning of the CIC’s secretarial staff that processes the complaints before they come to the information commissioners.

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