Right to Information Act: Challenges Ahead
Right to Information (RTI) is act of the Parliament of India to provide for setting out the practical regime of the right to information for citizens and replaces the erstwhile Freedom of information Act, 2002. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen of India may request information from a “public authority” (a body of Government or “instrumentality of State”) which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. The Act also requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally.
This law was passed by Parliament on 15 June 2005 and came fully into force on 12 October 2005. It was one of the major achievements of the UPA-1 Govt. led by Dr. Manmohan Singh. The basic object of the Right to Information Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, prevent corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense. An informed citizenry will be better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed. The Act has created a practical regime through which the citizens of the country may have access to information under the control of public authorities.
However after years its implementation remains inefficient and transparency and accountability seem to be under threat in India.
- Record keeping practices within bureaucracy is poor. There are problems of missing files. The information sought by citizens can be provided only if the records are maintained properly. Lack of staff and infrastructure for running information commission also limit the effectiveness of the Act .
- Protection of RTI activists is another issue. They face harassment, assaults and death threats. There are various cases where RTI activists have paid with their lives for exposing unscrupulous and powerful elements through the seemingly innocuous pursuit of information e.g. Lalit Mehta who was killed for exposing corruption in rural job guarantee projects in Palamu, Jharkhand. Human Rights Initiative finds that there have been as many as 289 attacks on RTI activists in India since the law came into being. The actual number could be higher, as the data is based on news reports compiled over a decade.
- An October 2014 report brought out by the RTI Assessment and Analysis Group (RAAG) found that on an average, 4-5 million applications are filed under the Act every year. 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 The report estimated that it would take a state like Madhya Pradesh 60 years to clear applications filed today and while West Bengal may be tad more efficient in this regard, it would still take 17 years before a petition filed in the state is attended to.
- 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. Public authorities often misuse two sections of the RTI Act i.e. 6(3) and 7(9) and one observation of the Supreme Court.
- Section 6(3) says that if a public authority receives a request for information which is held by another public authority, “the public authority, to which such an application is made, shall transfer the application or such part of it as may be appropriate to that other public authority”. Section 7(9) says that, “An information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question”
Some authorities pass the buck by using 6(3) without going through their own records. Officials often cite 7(9) for the denial of information.Moreover, a part of the Supreme Court bench’s order of August 2011 is now widely used by several authorities to avoid disclosures. The Supreme Court had stated, “The nation does not want a scenario where 75 percent of the staff of public authorities spends 75 percent of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties.”
- Public authorities hold the belief that the introduction of RTI has led to a lot of hassle, as they now have an additional charge of responding to applications for information. However, sometimes, people have to file five to six applications on a particular issue to get the information they need.
- Government is also not seen very active towards ensuring transparency in public offices. For instance, the post of Chief Information Commission had been vacant for 9 months. .
- Political parties are also not interested in ensuring transparency in Indian Democratic system. For instance, in 2013, when the Chief Information Commissioner took the important initiative to bring all national political parties under the Act’s purview, political interests across the spectrum swiftly came together and an amendment to the Act was framed to counter it.
- People are also not aware about the act. Women applicants, for instance, were insignificant in number, constituting just 8 per cent of the total applicants. Equally striking was the fact that although two-thirds of India’s population lives in villages, only 14 per cent of applicants were rural.
How can RTI act be more effective?
- Awareness about the Right to Information should be spread in rural areas so that more rural people could practice their right.
- Training should be provided to staff of information commissions so that they could manage information files. This can also lead to increase in the clearance of pending cases.
- There is need of some supplementary laws along with RTI Act such as Whistle-blower protection Act to protect RTI activists from attacks and life threats.
- Public information officers should be made more accountable for providing information.
Political parties should come together to pass required amendments and supplementary acts by Parliament.