India’s RTI Act Is Undermined by Staffing, Transparency Issues, Shows New Report
About 17 years ago, the Right to Information (RTI) Act came into effect in India, a legislation that “changed the contours of democratic governance in India.” If corruption and inequality were to be meaningfully eradicated, it was crucial to see people’s access to information as a right backed by the Constitution. Since 2005, more than 4.2 crore requests have been filed by citizens to demand information about everything related to the backgrounds of leaders, welfare schemes, and implementation of policies from the people who govern us.
The RTI Act was a catalyst for accountability. Its implementation, however, has never lived up to that promise. A new report by the NGO Satark Nagarik Sangathan paints a picture of bureaucratic congestion: at least 3.15 lakh complaints and appeals are pending in the 29 information commission (IC) offices throughout the country. This number has only steadily increased over the years. In 2019, there were 2,18,347 RTIs sitting in the pipeline; in 2022, this number stands at 3,14,323, a 48% increase.
India’s RTI Act is a unique institution globally for the way it allows citizen-led accountability of the state. But poor implementation takes away the ability to hold officials and policymakers accountable for their duties.
“Large backlog of appeals and complaints in many commissions across the country have resulted in inordinate delays in disposal of cases, which render the law ineffective,” the report noted. The vision of a regime of transparency is left unrealized, instead becoming a regime of delays, elusive replies, and inflexible routines. This not only bottlenecks meaningful change, but also deters people from taking initiative and further renders RTI activists vulnerable to a torpedo of threats and acts of violence. It is illegal to publicly put out the personal details of an RTI applicant, but on separate instances, government channels have flouted this rule, such as when the web portals of the Delhi Jal Board and Tihar Jail were hosting applicants’ names, designations, addresses, e-mail ids, and mobile numbers.
The pursuit of fact-checking and holding the government to account is a necessary undertaking. It becomes all the more crucial to our democracy especially now, in the context of laws passed without adequate public consultation or being rushed through the parliament despite opposition.
There are multiple reasons for the pending caseload. Understaffing of information commissions is chief among them. A lack of officials amounts to massive delays in acting on people’s complaints. Based on the current vacancies, pending caseload, and the speed with which cases are resolved, the report estimated it would take the West Bengal information commission 24 years and three months to dispose of a matter. To put it simply, if one were to file an RTI today, their matter would be resolved in the year 2046 if things don’t change.
The RTI Act mandates that information commissions be set up at the central level (Central Information Commission) and in the states (state information commissions). But two out of the 29 ICs are “completely defunct,” three of them were non-functional as the posts of commissioners lay vacant, and four of them do not have a chief officer at the moment, the report found. Most of them are working at a reduced capacity, including the Central Information Commission. Another report by Transparency International also found that one-fourth of information commissioner posts are vacant, and only eight out of the 165 posts of information commissioners are currently held by women. In Jharkhand, for instance, the absence of information commissioners over the last 29 months means if people have any complaints or appeals, there is no independent mechanism to seek justice.
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This is worrying because the ICs function as the site of democratic accountability, and the commissioners are the traffic cops green lighting information. Without them, people’s fundamental right to information is threatened. The Supreme Court in 2019 held that “…in the entire scheme provided under the RTI Act, [the] existence of these institutions [ICs] becomes imperative and they are vital for the smooth working of the RTI Act.”
The problem of understaffing is due to delays in making appointments owing to bureaucratic red tape, resulting in vacancies piling up. “This is particularly concerning given the humanitarian crisis induced by the Covid10 pandemic, which has made people, especially the poor and marginalized, even more dependent on government provision of essential goods and services like healthcare, food and social security. Without access to relevant information citizens are unable to get their rights and entitlements and corruption thrives,” the report pointed out. In 2019, a survey found out of the applications filed, less than 45% of people received the information they had sought.
The lack of transparency also persists due to a trend of elusive replies and arbitrary rejections that are never quite put to scrutiny. Everything from the number of Covid19 deaths, the number of migrant workers who were impacted by the exodus, to the healthcare infrastructure, RTIs often put to the Union government are never adequately answered. An analysis in 2021 revealed that almost 40% of RTI appeals rejected by the Union government were done so without providing a reason. For instance, in 2019, the Reserve Bank of India rejected any RTI application on the vagaries of demonetization. Last year, the Narendra Modi government refused to provide details about the PM CARES Fund which was set up with people’s funds to fight the pandemic.
Interestingly, the RTI Act was amended in 2019 by the government, which effectively gave them the power to regulate the tenure of information commissioners and inevitably undermined the independence of the CIC as a body mediating between the citizen and the government.
The crisis was to a degree that the Supreme Court also noted that if there are not an adequate number of commissioners, the very purpose of enacting the RTI law would prove to be a failed endeavor.
The other issue is of mismanagement in the way the law is applied. When officials were in fact found to be violating the law, or if there were any discrepancies in the system, the commissions have been tardy in their disciplining measures. So much so that no penalties were imposed in 95% of instances when violations took place.
“Unfortunately, the transparency watchdogs themselves have not had a shining track record in terms of being transparent and accountable to the people of the country,” the report noted. According to Section 25 of the RTI Act, each year a report should be presented to the Parliament outlining the status and degree of implementation. Most state information commissions (20 out of 29 of them) had not made the reports available in the year 2020-2021.
The RTI story is built on the premise of empowering people with information to fight for their rights. The infrastructure inadequacies coupled with the lack of transparency have merged to transform a regime of hope — once meant to empower the citizen, now dragging them through official channels as punishment for daring to ask.