One of the most well-meaning and politically enabling legislations that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had passed is at risk of being systematically denuded. With no Central Information Commissioner in place, the Right to Information (RTI) is lapsing into inconsequentiality.
While attention was riveted on the fate of the previous regime’s big-ticket Land Acquisition Act, a process is underway to undercut another of the UPA’s flagship legislations — the RTI Act — in a rather surreptitious and silent manner. It was widely felt that the RTI Act had made a positive contribution towards highlighting the shortcomings of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and other legislations. RTI activists across the country allege that this tool of accountability has broken down under the Narendra Modi dispensation as eliciting information from the government has become nearly impossible.
Transparency and access to information, recognised across the spectrum as prerequisites of good governance, have become an immediate casualty of neglect and governmental oversight. According to the available figures, there are over 39,000 RTI queries pending with the Central Information Commission (CIC), which has been functioning without a head for almost seven months now. The posts of three information commissioners have also been vacant for long. Yet, the government is astoundingly silent, leading to considerable heartburn and desperation among RTI activists.
It is public knowledge that while Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, among several others, were pioneers in making excellent use of the RTI Act, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also owes his early initiation into political life to the RTI Act. Roy has written several times to the prime minister about how the deliberate oversight is leading to “trivialisation of democracy”. Information about crucial government schemes and their status reports are thus being kept away from the eyes of RTI activists.
The CIC is the key agency entrusted with the implementation of the RTI Act. Its erstwhile chief, Rajiv Mathur, completed his tenure on 22 August 2014 and the post has been vacant since. Also, against the sanctioned strength of 10, it has only seven information commissioners: Vijai Sharma, Basant Seth, Yashovardhan Azad, Sharat Sabharwal, Manjula Prasher, MA Khan Yusufi and MS Acharyulu.
That the RTI Act is losing its edge is visible in the growing numbers of complaints and second appeals pending with the CIC after the Modi government was sworn in. There are 39,000 cases pending with the CIC, up from 24,150 on 31 October last year. The bulk of these — 28,888 to be precise — were appeals while the rest (7,431) were complaints.
“Because of top-level vacancies in the CIC, the officials have developed a tendency to withhold information and force the RTI applicants to go for an appeal, knowing well that they won’t be able to get anything out of that,” a Mumbai-based RTI activist told a wire agency.
Every day, the present dispensation says that it is transparent, but in practice, it is not, as the fate of the CIC amply suggests.
The ongoing process of denuding the RTI Act is also indicated by the significant fact that the Whistleblower’s Protection Act, passed more than a year ago, is yet to be operationalised because the Modi government has failed to frame the rules necessary for its implementation. This is in spite of the fact that the Presidential nod had come almost immediately after the Act was passed by Parliament. Rather than implementing and operationalising this legislation, the government is contemplating to limit its scope on the ground of protecting national security, officials say.
Activists who perceive a general decay in the legislation have also been vociferously complaining that they are unable to get from the authorities any information that goes beyond what is already available on the websites of ministries and departments.
They further assert that dodging RTI requests has become a norm among officials; the timeline mandatory for providing information is hardly being followed and there is no instance of an official being punished for a delay in providing information. The result has been that key offices like the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet have become completely opaque, allege activists.
Unfortunately, the legislation is being denuded at a time when the right to information is being exercised more frequently in India than anywhere else in the world. According to activists, around 4.5 million RTI requests are being generated every year in India, whereas in the US, this figure stands between 3 and 3.5 million.
According to information furnished by the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT), currently headed by Union Minister of State Jitendra Singh, 203 people, including all seven serving information commissioners and a former DOPT secretary, have applied for the top post.
Queries revealed that the number of pending cases in the CIC bench increased by 47 percent, from 7,655 to 11,212, in the four months since the retirement of Mathur.
The government had invited applications for the post of the CIC on 24 October last year. The last date for application was 23 November 2014. But intriguingly, the crucial post lies vacant even now.
According to the monthly progress reports put up by the CIC on its website, Vijai Sharma, at 5,971, had the most pending cases (complaints and appeals) among the seven information commissioners, followed by Yashovardhan Azad at 4,902 and Sharat Sabharwal at 3,999.
Manjula Prasher, the only woman member in the cic, had 3,418 pending cases while Basant Seth, MA Khan Yusufi, and MS Acharyulu had 3,408, 1,491 and 1,772 pending cases, respectively.
According to a set of statistics that have been circulated from time to time, when it came to disposing of applications in 2014, Acharyulu was at the top with the resolution of 2,891 RTI applications. He was followed by Sharma at 2,660, Seth at 2,351, Azad at 2,202, Sabharwal at 2,183, Prasher at 2,036 and Yusufi at 1,713 applications.
For the CIC, the monthly progress reports shows zero cases disposed against the 11,317 pending complaints for the whole of last year, which is interesting considering Mathur held the post till August 2014.
The pendency of cases suggests how deprived the conscious and conscientious citizen is of a tool that ensures a degree of transparency and an element of good and responsible governance. Is it a deliberate ploy to sabotage the RTI, as Aruna Roy had stated three months ago? Most activists agree that her fears do not seem to be completely unfounded.