RTI activists alarmed over proposed reforms

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Right to Information Act

Activists working for transparency in governance have a reason to be alarmed at the NDA government’s move to change rules framed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The government’s track-record on transparency is uninspiring. It has just hurried through the Lok Sabha amendments to 40 laws, including one that ensures anonymity in political funding.

An amendment proposes that an applicant can file complaints within 135 days of filing the application under the Act, and in case of delay a request for condonation will also have to be filed. There is another provision empowering the CIC to convert a complaint into a second appeal.

Thus, as proposed, it can order the disclosure of information on a complaint. The Commission can also allow an amendment to the complaint during the hearing, if other remedies have been exhausted. Also, as suggested, the CIC has been given the power to decide if an appeal or a complaint can be withdrawn on the applicant’s request. However, once the issue has been decided, the withdrawal will not be allowed. Since the RTI Act is one of the most empowering laws passed in India, any attempt to dilute it is bound to invite disapproval and criticism.

In a recent circular, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions Department of Personnel and Training has invited comments on the draft RTI Rules, 2017. These Rules would replace RTI Rules, 2012. Suggestions from concerned stakeholders were taken until April 15, 2017, via email to Preeti Khanna, Under Secretary (RTI), North Block, at [email protected] Rules add definitions for the Chief Information Commissioner, Decision, Information Commissioner, Non-compliance, Representative, Secretary and Section.

They add provisions elaborating on the documents and the format for filing a complaint with the Commission, return of such complaint, and the procedure for deciding complaints. Compliance of orders of the Commission has been prescribed to be filed within 30 days of the date of the order, in a case where no time period is fixed for the same. The new draft rules also allow the Commission to use its discretion for allowing withdrawal of appeal or a complaint if appellant requests but such requests cannot be entertained once the matter has been decided by it.

Peril of activists
Some RTI activists have objected to such suggestions by the government in the past saying information seekers may be coerced by people with vested interests and may even be killed as the information against them cannot be ordered to be disclosed in such cases. The rules also introduce provisions like providing a copy of complaint and appeal to the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) before approaching the CIC.

A proof in this regard will also be submitted to the Commission along with the complaint or appeal. The applicants will have to declare that the matter submitted by them before the Commission has not been decided or pending before the Commission or any court. The applicants can now file complaints within 135 days of filing the RTI application only. Any delay in filing the complaint will have to be accompanied with the request for condonation of delay. If the RTI applicant does not know the name and address of the CPIO or the First Appellate authority in a government department, he will have to provide a copy of his complaint to the department before approaching the Commission. The new proposed process asks the Commission to get replies from the CPIO within a specified time before issuing notices to them.

New provisions
The Rules also introduce a provision for amendment or withdrawal of an Appeal during the course of hearing. A provision for abatement of an Appeal or a complaint on the death of the Appellant has also been introduced. Persons desiring to remain anonymous can file RTI petitions through Post-Box numbers. Little doubt that some of the rules put up on the official site for public comments will discourage the healthy trend of RTI activism in this country. These include raising the application fee to 50, passing on the cost of reply and postage to the applicant, rejection of a hand-written application and an application exceeding 500 words. These may appear harmless but collectively they raise the bar for access to information. The provision for closing an RTI file on the death of the applicant, requiring the restart of the process for seeking information, serves, even if inadvertently, to aggravate risk to the life of public-spirited citizens.

The proposed new rules under section 27 of Right to Information (RTI) 2017 to modify the 2005 RTI Act give time upto April 15 to people to give their suggestions and views. The major changes in the newly proposed RTI rules read that any application, in general, shall not exceed the word limit of 500 words, excluding annexures and will contain the addresses of the Central Public Information Officer and that of the applicant. However, it has also been mentioned that no application shall be rejected only on the basis of the word limit. The Congress; however, didn’t seem to agree with the proposal as the senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, in his tweet, alleged that the government is trying to intimidate citizens with new rules.

Hurdles not transparency
Besides, citizens seeking information about their entitlements or rights are being put to hurdles seen in courts. In a 2013 case the Supreme Court had ruled that RTI appeals and complaints are not in the nature of a civil or criminal dispute, and information commissions established under the RTI Act are not quasi-judicial tribunals. An RTI application/appeal therefore should not end with the death of the applicant. If states too follow the Central RTI rules, the level of risk and costs for RTI activists can be well imagined. The government should instead pick up more suitable Information Commissioners rather than handing over these posts to loyalists and find ways for faster disposal of RTI applications. The apex court has questioned the functioning of information commissions and quality of orders passed.

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