Efficacy of RTI Act

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    In Context

    • Recently, there has been renewed concern across states over the functioning of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

    Concerns Related to RTI Implementation

    • On the occasion of 16 years of implementation of the RTI Act in India in October 2021, Satark Nagrik Sangathan has compiled a report on the performance of information commissions across the country based on information accessed under the RTI Act. 
    • The Report is titled, ‘Report Card of Information Commissions 2020-21’.
    • The report accused the various Information Commissions of acting as a major bottleneck in effective implementation of the RTI Law.
    • Reasons given for negative feedback:
      • A huge backlog of second appeals, 
      • Lengthy wait time for hearings, 
      • Hesitancy in posting penalties and 
      • Increasing opacity in the working of the commissions 
      • The commissions have been plagued with vacancies, 
      • Poor choice of commissioners, 
      • Untrained staff and 
      • A non-cooperative set of public information officers (PIOs). 
      • Threat to some RTI activists who seek information to expose corruption. 
    • Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Findings:
      • Threats to Activists: Across India, 99 RTI activists have lost their lives, 180 assaulted and 187 were threatened since 2006. 
      • People vs bureaucracy: While RTI is lauded in public, it faces fierce opposition from many within the bureaucracy and the lawmakers, the two key stakeholders of the RTI regime.

    Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005

    • About:
      • The Right to Information (RTI) Act was enacted by Parliament in 2005 to empower citizens, promote accountability and transparency in the working of the government and contain corruption.
      • Recently, the Parliament passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019.
        • As per the act, the CIC and ICs will hold office for a term of five years. The Amendment removes this provision and states that the central government will notify the term of office for the CIC and the ICs.
    • New breed of activism and citizenship:
      • Despite challenges in the RTI act, people have used it fiercely and owned the law like no other.
      • In the unequal battle of trying to hold power to account, it offers a sense of hope for the human desire for dignity, equality, & the capacity to enforce these to some extent.
      • RTI addresses the issue of constitutional rights and empowers people to demand answers – basis of democracy. It encourages a culture of asking questions of ordinary people.
      • It can help us escape from policy paralysis, and build a more informed, equitable and robust decision-making process.
    • Public Authorities need to make disclosures on various aspects of their structure and functioning. It includes:-
      • disclosure on their organisation, functions, and structure,
      • powers and duties of its officers and employees, and
      • financial information.
    • ‘Public Authorities’ include bodies of self-government established under the Constitution, or under any law or government notification. 
      • For instance, these include Ministries, public sector undertakings, and regulators. 
      • It also includes any entities owned, controlled or substantially financed and non-government organisations substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the government.

    Functioning of Right to Information Act

    • A three-tier structure for enforcing the right to information has been set up under the RTI Act 2005.
      • Public Information Officers: The first request for information goes to the Assistant Public Information Officer and Public Information Officer, designated by the Public Authorities.
        • These Officers are required to provide information to an RTI applicant within 30 days of the request.
      • Appellate Authority: It caters to the appeals against decisions of the Public Information Officer.
      • State Information Commission or the Central Information Commission (CIC): Their major function is to listen to appeals against the order of the Appellate Authority.
        • These Information Commissions consist of a Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and up to 10 Information Commissioners (ICs). 

    Challenges

    • Bureaucratic attitude: An oft-repeated excuse for this disdainful attitude is the number of inane queries or those with perverse motives. The reality, however, is that such queries constitute only around 4 percent of the total appeals and can easily be managed.
    • Various issues in State Information Commissions: 
      • Vacancies are not filled; 
      • Some continue without chiefs
      • Disallowing any “uncomfortable” information. 
    • PIOs: 
      • The audacity of PIOs in some cases is confounding: An information commissioner of Madhya Pradesh issued an arrest warrant in the name of a PIO for flagrant violation of 38 summons to appear for commission hearings and non-compliance with SIC orders.
      • Any serious RTI query or one which concerns more than one government department requires intervention by higher officials, but it is the PIOs from junior ranks who attend hearings and are often clueless
      • It is the junior ranks who face the wrath of the commissions and even face penalties.  
    • Negligence on Government’s part: The government department was equally negligent in taking disciplinary action against the PIO. Such a cavalier attitude is a great drawback for the RTI regime. 
    • Code of Conduct: The attitude of a few commissioners going public with their political proclivities is another cause for concern. 
    • Several RTI cases are embroiled in judicial procedures. High courts are quick to give stay orders on CICs’ decisions. The Act clearly states that the final appeal lies with the information commissions, so the appeals are masked as writs to obtain relief from high courts.
    • Whistleblowers losing interest: Key stakeholders seem to be losing their enthusiasm. 

    Supreme Court of India vs Subhash Chandra Agarwal Case: Supreme Court declared that the Office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is a ‘public authority’  under the purview of the transparency law, Right to Information Act (RTI) and observed that the transparency does not undermine judicial independence.

     

    Way Ahead

    • A strong political system is a must for the RTI regime to flourish.
    • The Indian information law, rated as one of the strongest in the world, needs to be bolstered by raising awareness amongst the people and organising rigorous training of government officials. 
    • A code of conduct must be evolved for the central and state information commissioners. 
    • It is imperative for the commissioners to keep a strict distance from government heads and officialdom. 
    • It is now up to the public, civil society, media, courts and finally the commissioners themselves to shore up the sagging morale of the RTI set-up.
    • It is imperative to ensure freedom of the press and democratic institutions, punish errant officials and maintain complete autonomy of the information commissions, in the interest of the people and the nation at large. 

    Source: IE 

    Mains Practise Question

    [Q] The Right to Information (RTI) Act is a sunshine legislation aimed at eradicating corruption and promoting transparency. Comment.