Bhartendu Harischandra, the father of modern Hindi literature, penned Andher Nagri (City of Darkness) in 1881. This satirical masterpiece, which ridicules a disorderly and anarchic administrative system, has not lost its relevance even today. The play tells the story of a man who seeks justice from the king after his goat is accidently killed. The half-witted king orders a probe to find the real culprit. A comical turn of events ultimately leads the king himself to the noose and the man goes home empty-handed.
Sounds familiar? To a Right to Information (RTI) applicant, it would. Implemented with much fanfare in 2005 to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the RTI Act has turned into a similar nightmare for the very people it was meant to serve. It is an open secret that RTI applications shuttle back and forth between departments. And when the information officer fails to respond within an appointed time, the information commission levies a fine on him/her. The applicant, as in the story, returns empty-handed.
Countless cases have come to light where information was not provided, excuses were made, or applications were summarily rejected. Getting information in the first attempt is no piece of cake. Plenty of money is wasted in the tossing of files between departments, which achieves nothing as the delay renders the information worthless.
After the Uttarakhand flash flood of June 2013, the state government faced flak over its failure to manage the situation. To probe the allegations, TEHELKA filed an RTI application at the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) on 8 July 2013. It sought the details of meetings held in the past three years to discuss arrangements for the annual Char Dham Yatra.
The CMO is responsible for preparing the minutes of the meetings chaired by the CM. As such, the CMO should have directly provided the information in response to the application. Instead, the application was forwarded to the state’s disaster management and tourism authority, which provided some information and passed on the application to other departments such as disaster management, religious and cultural affairs and the Char Dham Development Authority.
Three months later, TEHELKA had gathered enough information to reveal the state’s laxity in organising the yatra. It was found that decisions taken in 2011 were not implemented even after two years. The information exposed the real picture of the government’s relief programmes in the aftermath of the tragedy.
A similar incident took place at the Madhya Pradesh chief secretary’s office where TEHELKA had filed an RTI application on 5 July 2013 to find out the number of corruption complaints against ministers and other public representatives. We also sought to find the details of action taken by the Lokayukta on those complaints and the steps taken by the government. As per the norm, the CMO should have provided this information, but it forwarded the application to the Lokayukta.
What happened next is extremely shocking. Instead of providing the information, the Lokayukta declared the application invalid. The bizarre reason was that the application contained too many questions like ‘how’ and ‘why’. The department refused to respond to such an “interrogative” application under the RTI.
However, when TEHELKA filed a similar application in the Lokayukta office of Delhi, all information was provided without any objection. There are other instances where Lokayuktas reacted differently on similar queries. For the Chhattisgarh Lokayukta, it was too much information to provide in response to one application even though it only had to reveal the number of complaints filed.
In the past one year, TEHELKA had filed around 50 RTI applications in major departments, including the Lok Sabha Secretariat, Election Commission, railways ministry, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, CMOs and Lokayuktas as well as ministries such as information and public relations and home. Except for a few, none of them responded in the first attempt.
In fact, the department of information and public relations in Delhi and Gujarat refused to disclose even the policies announced by their CMs while their primary responsibility is dissemination of policies. Interestingly, it took the departments a month to inform TEHELKA that the desired “information was not available”.
It is not only the applications filed by TEHELKA that met such a fate. A number of such cases have been reported where either the applicant was made to wait too long or was denied the information. The reality of RTI can be gleaned from a joint report of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Central Information Commission (CIC) and 10 State Information Commissions (SICs) released in 2012. According to the report, around 40 lakh people used RTI applications in 2011-12. However, 10 percent (4 lakh) of the applications were rejected at the first step.
Ironically, former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi is among the many applicants who have been denied information. “After retiring from my post last year, I sought information regarding the tax returns of Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar,” he recalls. “But the Income Tax department refused to provide the information. I complained to the appellate officer but got no response. Then I appealed in the Maharashtra SIC, but in vain. Now the matter is with the Mumbai High Court.”
Social activist Aruna Roy, one of the torchbearers of the RTI movement, shared a similar incident where she was made to wait a long time before she received the desired information. Though this happened before the RTI Act was implemented, nothing has changed even now. If high-profile activists struggle to make use of the RTI Act, it is not difficult to guess what the common man must go through to exercise their fundamental right.
In August 2011, RTI activist Ram Pravesh Rai sought information regarding solar power distribution from the Bakhtiyarpur division office in Bihar. The reply he received after three months was insufficient. Dissatisfied, he appealed to the appellate officer and demanded complete information. In response, the officer directed the bureaucrat concerned to fulfil the demand, but in vain.
Finally, Rai filed an appeal with the SIC. On 21 February 2013, the SIC held the officer guilty, charged him a fine of Rs 250 per day and ordered him to provide the complete information. Despite the order, nothing happened. Rai wrote letters to the governor, CM, PM and the President, but did not get the necessary information.
On 2 June, a distressed Rai threatened to set himself on fire. Although the officials talked him out of it, his demands have not been met till date. That it led an RTI applicant to consider self-immolation shows how frustrating the procedure of seeking information gets.
A similar incident came to light in Gujarat in 2011. A man set himself on fire in front of a government office at Rapad in Kutch district because he did not get the information he had been seeking for a long time. He had been sitting on a hunger strike at the same spot but the officials paid no heed. He later succumbed to his injuries.
Looking at the cases of violation of the basic right, one question springs to mind. The RTI Act has been in vogue for almost a decade. So, why is it difficult to get information? Why do officers refuse to divulge information that the applicant is entitled to have by law?
Many activists who have fought the long battle for this cause blame the failure of the system on administrative corruption and the nexus of leaders and bureaucrats.
RTI activist Subhash Agrawal says that public information officers (PIOs) make the procedure so exhausting that applicants tend to give up after a while. “Whenever information is sought regarding a matter suspected of irregularities, the applicant is either handed over heavy bundles of sheets or the application is sent to multiple departments,” he says. “The applicant receives a different response from each department. The responses are written in a jargon difficult to comprehend, rendering the entire purpose of seeking information a lost cause.”
It is nothing but an open violation of Section 6(3) of the RTI Act. “Often the applicant does not know which department will provide the information,” says Agrawal. “Keeping this in mind, Section 6(3) of the RTI Act stipulates that if a public authority believes that the information sought is held by another public authority, it should transfer the application to the department concerned and inform the applicant about it right away.”
But a provision that was made for helping the common man has become a means of harassment in the hands of officers who juggle the applications between various government departments to suppress the information.
“Sometime ago, the Central Public Works Department transferred my application to 200 different authorities,” recalls Agrawal. “I am still receiving a series of random responses from them. I have had similar experiences with other Central authorities. Sometimes, the number of letters I receive in response crosses 1,000. It is not difficult to imagine how much time and money must be wasted in mailing thousands of useless letters.”
The authorities often report a shortage of staff and try to pacify the applicant by saying that the “information is being collected”. Then the question arises: If they have enough employees to send thousands of letters to one person, how can they be short of staff? “It is a matter of lack of will and not of employees,” laments Agrawal.
Is the unwillingness to expose irregularities in the system the only reason for RTI’s failure? Former Central Information Commissioner Gandhi disagrees. He believes that PIOs, who are responsible for disseminating information, often lack the necessary expertise.
“Most of the PIOs have little knowledge of the RTI Act,” says Gandhi. “Sometimes, they cannot even differentiate between the pages of a file that contain the information needed and that don’t. To make life easy for themselves, they hand over the entire file to the applicant.”
For example, in Dehradun a few years ago, a PIO charged an applicant Rs 20,000 and handed him 10,000 pages in response to his RTI application. On studying them, the applicant found all the information he needed in just 40 pages. It should have cost him only Rs 80.
There are many other examples of how the RTI Act is being exploited due to the ignorance of the PIOs and the citizens are bearing the brunt. At a CIC conference in New Delhi, several such cases were reported. SICs admitted that PIOs often seek reduction in fine by confessing their lack of knowledge about the Act.
“The governments must train the PIOs so that the public can be provided precise and timely information,” says Gandhi. “But they won’t do it because it will expose their own misdeeds.”
RTI activist Chandrashekhar Kargeti agrees. “The government is afraid of providing information through the RTI Act because lately several cases of corruption involving top ministers and officials have surfaced,” he says. “As such, PIOs avoid disclosing information that might directly involve a senior bureaucrat.”
Activists allege that bureaucrats often coach the PIOs about tactics that can be used to keep a lid on “explosive” information. “It is not unusual for senior officials to direct PIOs regarding RTI applications,” says a bureaucrat from Uttarakhand. Adds Kargeti, “Transferring applications to other authorities or discouraging the applicant by providing whole files of irrelevant information are part of these secret trainings.”
Last year, TEHELKA received a similar response from the Election Commission when we enquired about the details of action taken against the violation of the model code of conduct. “Such actions cannot be compiled as it may lead to disproportional deviation,” was the reply. Similarly, when details of air journeys undertaken by the Uttarakhand Cabinet were sought from the aviation authority, the department forwarded the application to district officers stating, “this information appears closest to you”.
The biggest hurdle in the flow of information is the PIOs and appellate officers. The ICs have also been accused of showing a negligent attitude towards subsequent appeals.
In November 2012, Kargeti sought details from the revenue secretary of Uttarakhand about a piece of irrigated land that was used for residential purpose after land use change. Kargeti also sought details of the people, organisations, trusts and companies to whom the government had leased the land in 2001-12. But the authority did not provide the information. When he appealed to the appellate officer, his application was forwarded to the revenue board and district officers.
“The revenue board and district officers held back most of the information,” says Kargeti. “I came to know that during that period, the Uttarakhand government had allocated land to many top politicians, including Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, senior BJP leader LK Advani, former CM Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ and Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in- law Robert Vadra.”
Kargeti filed an appeal with the Uttarakhand SIC and the matter was brought to the notice of CIC NS Napalchyal. Despite all that, he did not get the complete information. Kargeti claims that the main reason was that most of the land deals were undertaken during the CIC’s term. After providing selective information, the appeal was closed in May 2013.
Nevertheless, the RTI Act has achieved several milestones during the past decade. It has played a significant role in exposing cases of corruption from the gram panchayat level to the Centre and has helped in nabbing the culprits. The Act was useful in uncovering the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board scam that shook the state’s political circles. But a bitter reality is that the Act has not met the needs of a majority of the people the way it was envisaged in 2005.
Recently, a survey was held in five states to find out the opinion of people about the RTI Act. According to the survey, 25 percent respondents were satisfied with the information they received. Another 25 percent found it to be average. But 50 percent of them said that they had to struggle a lot to get the information that they needed. “The survey suggests that there are many who are satisfied with the RTI Act,” says Gandhi. “But the response point out the fact that there is still a long way to go to improve it.”
What changes can be introduced to ensure that the RTI applicant gets precise and timely information?
It is widely believed that there is a need to strengthen the SICs and authorise them to slap criminal charges on officers besides levying a fine for delaying information. Otherwise, the applicant must approach the court where it takes a long wait to solve the matter.
Gandhi says that if the SICs exercise the power that rests with them at present, things will improve. But the appointment of SICs is a political decision and most of them work under pressure.
For Agrawal, the best option would be to scrap the RTI Act. “If the public authorities put the important information in the public domain, there would be no need for people to file RTI applications,” he says. “They can download the information from the respective websites. But the question is will the departments ever want their misdeeds to be just a click away from the public eye?”
In June 2013, the CIC ruled that all six national political parties must come under the ambit of the RTI Act. Four of them, including the Congress and the BJP, displayed a rare sense of unity in protesting against the move and decided to table an amendment Bill excluding the parties from RTI. The amendment was easily passed in both Houses of Parliament.
For many, there are only two ways out of the deadlock — a change of heart by politicians or another mass movement.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman