By Neha Mahal
In 2015, the Right to Information act completed ten years, though amidst mixed opinions evaluating its journey so far. On one hand, there is a sense of rejoice for its role in establishing citizens’ right to seek information from public authorities. On the other hand, inaction on reforms needed for efficient implementation of the act have raised doubts over how far things have practically changed at the ground level. The reality of RTI act’s implementation lay somewhere in the middle of these two standpoints. In its decade long existence, the act has managed to bring transparency by exposing slew of corruption cases running into thousands of crores such as CWG, 2G and Adarsh society scam. But, accountability in the routine working of the public authorities is yet to take roots as majority of common citizens still find access to information difficult due to delays, supply of insufficient information and limited reach of the act.
Pendency: Key Barrier in Flow of Information
Citizen’s participation in everyday governance entails supply of information in due time. According to a study, pendency of cases in 23 Information Commissions (ICs) across India is 1, 98,7391. And, it takes at least a year for an appeal to come up for hearing before an IC. The resultant delay in accessing information undermines citizens’ right to know and redress individual grievances, access entitlements such as ration cards and pensions, investigate government policies and decisions, and expose corruption. One of the main reasons for high pendency of appeals with ICs is ineffective process of information supply at the level of Public authorities (PAs) during first application and subsequent first appeal2.
The information Seeker Survey found that “75 per cent of the citizens are dissatisfied with the quality of the information provided by PAs” 3. Even the process of first appeal does not yield substantial result. Except for first appeals filed with the central government or Delhi government, there is less than 4% chance of getting any information by filing a first appeal4. The reason behind such state of affairs is not only bureaucratic resistance to transparency but inefficient information collection and management system within government agencies5. As the files and information are dispersed across several offices of one department for lack of digitisation of records, it becomes difficult to provide information completely and timely on the part of PAs6.
Along with it, suppliers of information, the Public Information Officers (PIOs) are not properly equipped or trained to handle the responsibility of supplying information. According to a study, 45% of the PIOs have not undergone any form of training related to the RTI act7. Thus, lack of comprehensive capacity building efforts make it difficult for them to process the bulky information held by government agencies into legible one sought by citizens8. The IC report also observed that many cases may not have been brought up for adjudication if well informed PIOs had resolved the issue earlier9.
Impending administrative reforms
The obstructions faced by ICs and PAs in maintaining flow of information arise from weakening of SICs’ role as implementing agencies. Under section 18 of the central RTI act, SICs, along with disposing off 2nd appeals and complaints, are also responsible for supervising compliance of the act by PAs10. Recognizing the importance of modernization of record management by introducing information technology and capacity building of PIOs for proper implementation of the act, SICs have regularly recommended to their respective state governments to carry out these reforms. Yet, it eludes implementation because SICs do not have the authority to enforce its recommendations. The authority rests with the state governments which have so far shown negligible progress in implementing these recommendations11.
Lack of substantive authority also reduces capacity of SICs to uphold other channels of bringing in accountability in functioning of PAs. The RTI act allows SICs to impose penalty on PIOs for delaying or refusing the supply of information. Since, SICs lack power of enforceability of its orders, even penalties that are imposed are not recovered12. There is a connection between the number of penalties imposed and both the willingness of PIOs to make information available, and consequently, the number of appeals and complaints reaching information commissions. Hence, authority of SICs is an important dimension in tackling issues of information supply under RTI act.
Lack Of Ownership By State Government
Lack of ownership of the act by state governments has also resulted in scarcity of financial resources for the functioning of the act. Union Government, on the recommendation of the 2nd Administrative Reform Commission had advised state governments to earmark 1 % of the funds meant to implement major welfare schemes towards necessary reforms such as digitization of records and buying necessary infrastructure to provide information over a period of five years13. A study by Research And Advocay Group (RAAG) highlights that state governments have merely forwarded the circulars of Directorate of Personnel Training (DoPT) on RTI implementation guidelines to the Public Authorities without undertaking any financial or administrative reforms themselves14
Along with delaying reforms, scarcity of funds has thwarted initiative at the level of ICs to deal with issue of backlog of cases. ICs require competent and professional full time employees to help in preparing case backgrounds but there is no allocation in budget for such posts15. Thus, ICs have to make do with smaller and ad hoc staff lacking expertise which delays work adding to mounting pendency. Further down, an inadequate budget is available to public authorities at the district level to implement the RTI Act, be it in terms of undertaking training programmes for its officers, creating awareness about the Act, providing publicity material, user guides to the public and other related matters16. Lack of infrastructure with the public authorities at the district and village level makes dissemination of information about welfare schemes related to education, health and right to work practically impossible.
This has resulted in information divide between urban and rural areas. Urban areas have multiple sources to access information such as newspaper, radio and television, internet. While rural areas depend mostly on government channels to get information about initiatives and policies. The resultant gap reflects in the profile of RTI users. While majority of RTI applicants are BPL citizens but they live in urban areas (86%) and rural based users constitute miniscule proportion of users (14%)17. Limited access to RTI in rural areas eludes the objective of the act which was to enable free flow of information, especially, to the grassroots level.
RTI is a landmark legislation as it was enacted after a sustained demand and struggle from the grassroots level. It empowered ordinary citizen to question government accustomed to function in unbreachable secrecy. Where people and activists have been able to make use of RTI, results have been rewarding- from uncovering human rights violations in Hashimpura, to bringing transparency in IIT-JEE entrance exams and making MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee act) related information public.
Yet, a lot remains to be done to make transparency and accountability a regular feature of governance in India. The urban-rural divide in its access contradicts its foremost objective of bringing information and thus, empowerment to the masses at grassroots level. The lack of reforms denies citizens the opportunity to make governance people-centric. Given that the weakness of the RTI lies in its weak implementation, the next phase of RTI act needs to focus on increasing the authority of implementing agencies, especially SICs, of the act in order to set in motion the practical regime of RTI by ensuring much needed compliance from government agencies.