The Right to Information (RTI) Act, operationalised in October 2005, was seen as a powerful tool for citizen empowerment. It showed an early promise by exposing wrongdoings at high places, such as in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games, and the allocation of 2G spectrum and coal blocks. However, it now faces multiple challenges.
The Act, path-breaking in many respects, did not give adequate authority to the Information Commissions to enforce their decisions. Besides awarding compensation to an applicant for any loss suffered, the commissions can direct public authorities to take the steps necessary to comply with the Act, but are helpless if such directions are ignored.
True, if an officer fails to fulfil his duty, the commission can either impose a maximum penalty of ₹25,000 or recommend disciplinary action against him. However, this deterrent works only when the piece of information lies at the lower levels; it is ineffective in many cases where information relates to higher levels of government. Implementation of decisions taken by the commissions, therefore, remains a weak link.
The recently proposed amendments to the Act would, instead of strengthening the hands of commissions, weaken them. The government proposes to do away with the equivalence of the Central Information Commissioners with the Election Commissioners on the ground that the two have different mandates. The underlying assumption that transparency is less important for a democracy than holding of free and fair elections is preposterous.
The government also proposes to replace the existing fixed five-year tenure of the Information Commissioners with a tenure as may be prescribed by it. This would make the tenure a largesse to be bestowed by the government. This would be detrimental to the independence and authority of the Information Commissions.
The Act struck a balance between privacy and transparency by barring the disclosure of personal information if it has no relationship to any public activity or would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy. However, the Justice Srikrishna Committee has proposed an amendment that would broaden the definition of ‘harm’, restricting disclosure of personal information even where it may be clearly linked to some public activity.
The Central and State Information Commissions have been functioning with less than their prescribed maximum strength of eleven because governments have dragged their feet on appointing commissioners. For instance, the Central Information Commission (CIC), currently having seven members, will have only three by the end of the year if no appointments are made. This leads to delay in disposal of cases, which is compounded by the backlog in the High Courts, where a number of decisions of the commission are challenged. This happens invariably in cases concerning the high and the mighty. For example, the CIC’s decision in 2007 to cover Indraprastha Gas Ltd. under the Act was stayed by the Delhi High Court, and the stay continues to operate.
The clogging of the RTI system is also because a number of applicants, usually disgruntled employees of public institutions, ask frivolous queries. Their applications have unfortunately continued to exist alongside those of numerous RTI activists who have done commendable work, often risking their life and limb.
Further, Section 4 of the RTI Act requires suo motu disclosure of a lot of information by each public authority. However, such disclosures have remained less than satisfactory. Thus, the CIC has had to repeatedly direct regulators of the banking sector to disclose information on the wrongdoings of banks, so as to enable the public to make informed choices about their dealings with various banks.
In one case, the CIC had to direct the disclosure of the list of private persons who travelled with the Prime Minister, at government expense, during his foreign visits. Such information should have been disclosed suo motu by the government.
The RTI Act continues to render yeoman service in providing information to citizens. Though its aim is not to create a grievance redressal mechanism, the notices from Information Commissions often spur the public authorities to redress grievances.
Thirteen years of the Act’s functioning have given us enough experience to hold a public debate on making it more effective. However, if the issues listed above are not addressed, this sunshine law will lose its promise, particularly in terms of ensuring transparency at higher levels of governance.
The author is a former diplomat and a former Central Information Commissioner. Views expressed are personal
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