Report Paints Bleak Picture of Indian RTI Law at 10th Year

16 October 2014

A comprehensive and scathing report on the Indian Right to Information documents extensive weaknesses in the system and makes major recommendations for reform.

The 150-page examination provides a detailed picture of dysfunction, including “huge” backlogs, an ineffectual appeals process, lack of compliance with orders and penalty awards, and weak records management.

The research provides many facts about the use of the law, including “poor awareness” of it, substantially less use of it in rural areas and by women and intimidation of requesters.

The 77 recommendations call for sweeping changes, such as compensating requesters who ask for material that should have been disclosed, much more proactive disclosure and creation of common regulations.

Released as the RTI Act turned 10 in Oct. 13, Peoples Monitoring of the RTI regime in India-2011-2013,” was prepared by RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RaaG) and Samya- Centre for Equity Studies (CES).

The major findings include:

  • “There is poor awareness about the RTI Act, worse in rural areas than in urban areas.’ The report says, “There continues to be an urgent need for a concerted and professional approach to increasing awareness among the public.”
  • Participation of women in the RTI process, especially as applicants, has been minimal, with a national average of 8%. Conducting a national assessment to determine why is proposed.
  • Only 14% of the applicants were from rural areas, even though over 70% if India’s population lives in rural areas. Again, more research is advised.
  • By far the most RTI requests are intended to redress grievances, prompting the authors to recommend that Parliament pass the Grievance Redress Bill.
  • The first appellate process is “ineffectual,” the report concludes, recommending that information commissions “summon the first appellate authority to appear before the Commission” and that a standardized format for orders of the first appellate authority needs to be adopted.”
  • “Applicants, especially from the weaker segments of society, are often intimidated, threatened and even physically attacked when they go to submit an RTI application, or as a consequence of their submitting such an application.” Seven remedies are suggested for penalizing such activity. The need to file RTI applications for routine information could be reduced, the report says, by more proactive disclosure, more efficient government action, and by putting of all RTI queries and the answers given (except where the information relates to private matters) in the public domain, in a searchable database.
  • Nearly 70% of the RTI applications seek information that should have been proactively made public without citizens having to file an RTI application. 49% sought information which should have been proactively provided under section 4 of the RTI Act (or other similar sections in other laws), the report says. A variety of suggestions are given, including the idea of compensating requesters for having to ask for information that should have been provided. More official attention needs to paid to proactive disclosure, the report says.
  • “One major constraint faced by PIOs in providing information in a timely manner is the poor state of record management in most public authorities.” The report observes that “given the tardy progress in this direction perhaps what is needed is a national task force specifically charged with scanning all office records in a time bound manner and organizing them in a searchable database retrievable by key words.”
  • Nearly 45% of public information officers “have not received any training on the RTI Act.” the researchers found. The report offers six remedies, including creation of training materials and system to disseminate commission rulings.
  • “There are huge and growing delays in the disposal of cases in many of the information commissions, with pendency of cases growing every month,” the report says, providing considerable documentation. The main reasons behind the delays seem to be the paucity of commissioners in some of the commissions and the low productivity of some of the other commissioners, mainly due to inadequate support. “The additional fact that there is no legally prescribed time limit for disposing second appeals not only allows ICs to be indifferent about delays but also prevents appellants from approaching the high court.” New productivity norms, more staff, more training and format standardization are among the recommendations.
  • Orders of information commissions “often” are not heeded to by the authorities and penalties are not recovered. More efforts at compliance are urged, with suggestions such as time limits and automatic show cause orders.
  • Less than 3.7% of penalties imposed are ever collected, the report estimates. “Information commissioners across the country should get together and collectively resolve to start applying the provisions of the RTI Act more rigorously, especially those dealing with the imposition of penalties,” according to the report, which also suggests creation of a “detailed database” on the penalties and compliance.
  • Many of the information commissions have websites that “are outdated with very sparse details and much of the required information missing.”
  • Finding that many information commissioners feel that their dependence on the government for budgets, sanctions and staff seriously undermines their independence and autonomy, and inhibits their functioning, the report counsels requiring that commission budgets be voted on directly by the Parliament or the state assembly.
  • The composition of information commissions across the country “has a bias towards retired government servants,” that needs to be corrected, the report says, suggesting more transparency and public consultation.
  • India has 118 separate sets of rules formulated by states, courts, information commissioners. “Consequently, an applicant is confronted with the often insurmountable problem of first finding out the relevant rules and then attempting to comply with the application form, identity proof, or mode of fee payment requirements, which differ from state to state and are often virtually impossible to comply with.” The Government of India needs to develop a consensus on a common set of minimum rules.
  • “The mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of the RTI Act, and for receiving and assimilating feedback, are almost non-existent,” the report says, proposing creation of a National Council for the Right to Information, to monitor the implementation.

The report examines how other countries handle proactive disclosure, deal with coverage of political parties, appointment of commissioners, implementation of orders, and relations with Parliament, again making suggestions.

Further study is suggested on topics such as using mobile phones to make requests, designation of exempt organizations, and how to make people aware of their right, under section 2(f) of the RTI Act, to access information from private bodies, including the corporate sector, such that it can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.

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