Two years ago the country received the gift of a right to information law. The right was in fact granted 57 years ago with the Constitution, but remained largely on paper. Today the right is reinforced through a well-defined regime which has two key pillars: the information commissions and the public authorities. The bureaucracy and governments - at the Centre and state - are meant to assist them.
Where do we stand today on the RTI Act? Look at the numbers. Pending appeals with the Central Information Commission (CIC), as on September 30, was 3,898. The corresponding figure of disposed appeals was 4,966. Back of the envelope calculations of the number of applications filed with all the central public authorities works out to around 90,000 in these nine months.
Those resorting to RTI have benefited considerably. No field has remained untouched - from banking, insurance, railways, airports to education and development. People have got long-pending insurance claims settled. Retired senior citizens have received their gratuities. Those who have been penalised unfairly at work have got suspensions withdrawn. Students have got their marksheets rectified, and so on. In many ways the RTI has become a way for ordinary people to counter a stubborn and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy.
The success stories are innumerable. Take the case of Divye Bedi. He ran from pillar to post for two-and-a-half years for his Employees Provident Fund Organisation dues. When he filed a second appeal before the CIC, he received his dues and even a compensation of Rs ,1000 for the harassment. Syed Ahmed, under suspension, was not granted the subsistence allowance due to him. When his RTI application did not get a response, he approached the CIC, which directed that this allowance be granted.
Then there is the case of Anoop Kumar, a surveyor with United
India Insurance Company. His bills were pending for more than eight years. He took up the matter under RTI. Although he did not get a response, he started getting his cheques. The Act's main power comes from the timeframe of 30 days it specifies, and the penalty provisions for those not acceding to the request.
The challenge now is to extend RTI. Right now, users are largely government employees and educated urbanites. The majority know very little about their right to know. The law's framers envisaged this and put the onus, unambiguously, upon the government to address this by acting pro-actively and assisting and educating ordinary citizens on how to protect their right to information - with the help, if necessary, of RTI activists.
Coupled with this is another dilemma: which public authority should a citizen approach for a particular piece of information? This is where the various information commissions are not doing their job. Public authorities are not forced to attend hearings at the commission level. In a number of cases, they are not implementing the commission's decisions. Contradictions in decisions taken by various information commissions is another grey area.
Any new legislation would have its share of problems and the RTI law is no exception. Particularly disconcerting is the growing number of cases pending before information commissions. In Maharashtra, for instance, appeals filed in February 2006 are coming up now - a gap of almost 20 months!
The gap will only increase with time. Incidentally, the highest number of appeals have been filed before Maharashtra Information Commission. This, to my mind, is a great drawback arising from the deeds and misdeeds of the Commission. Inadequate punitive action has led to the public information officers continuing to deny information on flimsy grounds. While the CIC has consciously announced that it will bring its pendency figure down to zero and has taken action towards this end, several state commissions - including Maharashtra's - remain lackadaisical.
The first appellate authorities are generally not playing the role envisaged for them. They are not responsive to the objectives of the act and their own obligations. They either don't reply or do so in a mechanical manner. This is because they face neither penalisation nor public scrutiny. They must be brought within the ambit of the penalty provisions in the RTI Act.
Two years is too short a time for a law to get established. But in order to work towards this end, the government needs to be far more active and undertake a whole series of initiatives, ranging from educating the public about their right to information to distributing ready-reckoners on how to exercise this right under the law.
What could be thereason ? I did not find any difficulty in getting an innocent information. But when the information sought for is likely to expose corruption or negligence of duties of anyone in he chain one will find all sort of opposition.In such cases the information sought is not likely to be revealed unless stringent punitive action is forthcoming.