It has been more than eight months now since Madhumita Roy (name changed) applied for a passport. Finally, in December 2013, she went to the regional passport office in Secunderabad to file a Right to Information (RTI) application to seek information regarding the status of her passport.
To her dismay, she found there was no provision in the office to submit her RTI application at the counter. Instead, over the next five hours, she was made to fill a form with her file number, wait in queue at the enquiry counter and ultimately sent to meet the passport officer. “What if I did not have a file number? Can’t I simply file an RTI application seeking information about the activities in the office,” asks an agitated Roy.
RTI activists and lawyers feel that though the Right to Information Act, 2005, is a landmark legislation, its many loopholes have stood in the way of its effective implementation.
Experts say that most public information officers are not well versed with the rules when it comes to dealing with RTI applications. “No effort is made to train the officers,” says C.J. Karira, a Hyderabad-based RTI activist and moderator of the web portal rtiindia.org.
According to the data obtained by the RTI Legal Aid Society from the Chief Information Commission, 5,485 RTI applications were registered between August and November last year, 3,019 applications were yet to be registered and 2,779 appeals were returned for discrepancies in that period. Karira claims about 26,000 cases are pending with the commission.
“Low level functionaries who lack proper knowledge of RTI work are being appointed as public information officers. Also, since there is no pressure of a deadline in case of a second appeal to the information commissioner, the number of pending cases is going up all the time,” says Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, an NGO that works in the field of grievance redressal in RTI cases.
The RTI Act states that if the state or central public information officer fails to respond within 30 days to any application for information or deliberately misinforms or delays the process, then the commission can impose a penalty of Rs 250 per day till the information is furnished. However, the total amount of the penalty should not exceed Rs 25,000.
L.C. Singhi, advocate, Delhi High Court, feels that the act has been drafted in a hurry. “The power to give information is with the public information authority, but his position in the hierarchy of public authority has not been spelt out,” he says.
Besides, activists across the country allege that the act is useful only in lighter cases such as seeking information about the status of one’s passport and ration or PAN cards. “The moment an RTI activist asks for information which concerns grave issues, it is cited as falling under an exempted category of information according to Section 8 of the act,” says Karira.
Anuj Dhar, a Delhi-based RTI activist and author of several books on Subhas Chandra Bose, has been fighting to access information about the way Bose met his end. But his attempts have been repeatedly thwarted on the pretext that the information is contained in classified files. Dhar claims that even by conservative estimates there are more than 150 classified files on this issue in different departments of the central government, with 77 files lying in the Intelligence Bureau alone. “Through RTI, I came to know from the PMO that there are 33 secret files of which about 22 are about Bose’s disappearance. But they refuse to disclose even their titles claiming that they are highly classified,” says Dhar.
That’s not all. When Dhar sought information from the West Bengal chief minister’s office regarding the matter, he received no response within the stipulated time. An exasperated Dhar has taken up the matter with the state information commission and is now waiting for its response.
As for the large number of cases pending before the information commissions, experts say that this is primarily because many of the states do not have the stipulated number of information officers. In fact, Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh have neither a chief information commissioner (CIC) nor information commissioners. Assam, Rajasthan, Sikkim and Tripura have only one information commissioner each. The RTI Act mandates that every state information commission should have one CIC and a minimum of two information commissioners.
Members of state information commissions stress that their hands are tied because of lack of manpower. Says Sujit Sarkar, chief information commissioner, West Bengal State Information Commission, “From 2005 to 2009, the only member of the commission was the CIC. When I came in as the CIC in December 2009, there was a huge backlog of around 5,000 applications. Subsequently, two information commissioners joined me. We are clearing the backlog as fast as possible and also trying to bring to book errant officials who delay the process.”
Another problem cited by activists is that more often than not, those appointed as CICs and information commissioners are retired bureaucrats, IPS officers, and even politicians. Experts say that they often tend to have vested interests and hence are loath to disclose some types of information. “They tend to have vested interests in not sharing information,” stresses Bhardwaj.
Singhi feels that one important lacuna in the act is that there is no provision for any punitive measure against an errant first appellate authority. “Strict punitive measures should be introduced to bring some accountability. There should be a provision that deliberate suppression of information, if proved beyond reasonable doubt, can call for imprisonment,” says Singhi.
Bharadwaj too agrees that the lack of adequate penalty has led to a sense of impunity among information officials.
Another section of activists feels that when all is said and done, the act lacks teeth. “RTI applicants or activists want relief. Mere information serves no purpose if action is not taken against the guilty. A regulatory body should be there to address such grievances,” says Asit Manna, a RTI activist associated with the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights.
Indeed, most experts agree that it is really the lack of strict implementation that fails the act. “The act in itself is strong and progressive, but its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Section 4 of the act clearly stresses proactive disclosure of information — but this basic requirement is poorly implemented,” says Singhi.
It’s perhaps time the government took into account the concerns of activists and other stakeholders and amended the act in order to make it more effective.