Controversies Cloud India’s RTI Act 10 Year Anniversary

15 October 2015

Last week he said he couldn’t make it, but this week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he would attend a national conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2005 Right to Information Act.

And that (see NDTV report) wasn’t the only controversy surrounding the annual RTI conference sponsored by the Central Information Commission.

Some RTI activists are boycotting the event, after the Central Information Commission invited fewer RTI activists to attend the conference it sponsors, to be held Oct 16-17, reported in The Economic Times.  A number of prominent activists who won’t attend, including Aruna Roy, have accused the Intelligence Bureau of running background checks on activists (see report).

The turmoil played into ongoing criticisms that the Modi government is hostility to the RTI Act.

The occasion of the 10th anniversary on Oct. 12 has resulted in numerous published assessments in recent months, most agreeing that despite many problems the law has had an enormous social and political impact.

“For 10 years now, the RTI Act has been doing for people which no other Act or grievance mechanism has done,” according to a DNA article by Ashutosh Shukla.  “It has, in fact, strengthened grievance and reason.”

HuffPostIndia revisited “5 Scams The RTI Act Helped Bust In Its First 10 Years.”

“In its 10 years, the RTI Act has radically empowered the citizen,” wrote Amit Bhardwaj in Tehelka.com. “However, with activists murdered and provisions amended, it is still an uphill struggle against an inherently corrupt system.”

“Looking back, one can say the RTI has achieved much but clearly, it seems to have reached a plateau now,” according to former CIC member Satyananda Mishra, writing in The Indian Express.

The Act “has changed the thinking and the style of functioning of government machinery in the last 10 years,”  begins an article by Shyamial Yadav in The Indian Express, “but it has run into official roadblocks too: many officials have learnt the fine art of how to confuse the applicant, provide misleading information or claim that the requisite information is exempt from the RTI,”

Heated debate was heard in 20-minute Hindu TV program exploring the topic: “Killing the Right to Information.”

Aruna Roy was positive about the future of the act during an interview on Moneycontrol.

I see 8 million Indians now getting the right to question the states, the governments, their departments, what they interface with, to question corruption, to question arbitrary use of power, to get their rations, to get medicines and it is a phenomenal change from what I saw 25 years ago in rural India amongst the poor in urban India, even ordinary citizens. So, there are always problems. Any enactment, any legislation will bring forward a huge hoarder problems and in this case we are really asking for a share power from the system. So, the system is going to react and these are reactions of the system that Satyananda Mishra has defined. Those will have to be fought, they will have to be changed. 15-20 years ago no one thought we would get the right to information and we got it. The UPA – I, the National Advisory Council and the chairperson Sonia Gandhi were all politicians but they pushed the RTI through. Of course 11 months later they asked for a amendment but the fact remains that they pushed it through. So, it depends on people whether we can really make the political establishment see it our way, whether we can make bureaucracy work, I am not at all pessimistic.

Millions of Request, Backlogs

Data from the Central Information Commission suggests that RTI as a way of ensuring public accountability is becoming increasingly popular year by year, wrote Neerad Pandharipande on First Post A CIC report says that the number of requests pending with public authorities rose from 6,26,748 in 2009-10 to 9,62,630 in 2013-14, an increase of 53.5 percent.

One ongoing controversy remains the vacancies on both the Central Information Commission and the state commissions, which has resulted in sizeable backlogs.

The Government recently told the Delhi High Court that the pendency of cases in the CIC has declined after the recent appointment of a new chief commissioner and one other commissioner.  The petitioners are trying to get other vacancies filled, according to a media report.

The Economic Times reported that the number of appeals and complaints with the CIC has plummeted 96 per cent to 119 in September from 3,356 in May. “This has raised concerns over the functioning of CIC, the last resort for the common man to exercise his right under the transparency law,” the article said, indicating that there may be record-keeping problems. It also reported: “The sudden drop in the number of cases over the past four months has coincided with a speedy decline in the cases pending with CIC to 35,000 from a peak of about 40,000 in May.”

LiveMint provided vacancy and backlog graphics.

Information commission vacancies are a problem in many states. For example, The Times of India wrote:

Though the nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of Right to Information (RTI) Act on October 12, its birthplace Rajasthan is struggling to implement the basics of the Act with just one information commissioner (IC) handling the affairs when the state can have a maximum of 10 at a time.

 

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