Since its approval in November 2005, RTI Act has been hailed as a potent weapon against red tape. Though awareness of its provisions is rising, activists say bottlenecks remain
More than two years after the Right To Information (RTI) Act came into force, it has helped many a social cause, ensuring transparency and accountability in officialdom. Though awareness of its strengths has crept in, activists hope for a better response from authorities that favour curtailing its potency. Ignorance among information officers of provisions of the Act, inordinate delays in hearing of pleas by information commissions and appointment of bureaucrats as information officers are some contentious areas. The recently introduced Punjab RTI Rules 2007 has only served to add to the concerns.
GRAPPLING WITH RULES
Hitender Jain of Resurgence India, a Ludhiana-based group working on RTI Act, had been seeking notification of rules since November 2005. However, now he feels that the prescribed cure is worse than the ailment. "The rules contradict the legislation at various points involving public interest. For instance, Form 'E' calls for rejection of appeal for information on the ground that it comes under the exempted category cov ered under Sections 8 and 9 of the Act. These sections contain 11 grounds for rejection of information and under the legislation, the public information officer (PIO) is duty bound to give reasons for rejection and needs to justify that protected interests outweigh public interest. Further, Section 10 of the Act calls for access to part of same record which is not exempt. There is no such provision in Punjab rules," he says.
Information can also be rejected on grounds of unsatisfactory identity of the information seeker, information already available in published material, information available on website and "any other reason". "There is absolutely no requirement under the RTI Act for the applicant to prove his identity. Moreover, even when the information is already published, it is very well covered under the definition of "information" under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act. It is obligatory to provide even the published information when sought for. The pretext for rejection that information can be downloaded from the website is ridiculous. An applicant may not have access to the Internet. It is obligatory to provide such information when sought for under Section 6(1) of the RTI Act," says lawyer H.C. Arora.
The Punjab government's prescribed Form-A seeks information on nine queries from the RTI applicant. "The form asks the applicant if information was made available by the public authority under voluntary disclosure. The applicant may not even have the means to know whether the information is available under voluntary disclosure. He is supposed to browse the website or research the published material before seeking information. In addition, he is supposed to provide personal details like spouse's or father's name and permanent address besides correspondence address whereas only correspondence address is required under the Act," Jain says.
DELAYS IN ABUNDANCE
The inordinate delays in civil courts seem to have plagued the information commissions set up under the RTI Act as well. As many as 3,171 complaints and appeals were pending with the CIC till the end of March 2007, with a pendency of over 200 complaints building up every month. The situation is not different at the state level.
Arun Kumar had filed an RTI application with the Ludhiana Municipal Corporation on April 18, 2007, seeking details about a building under construction. The building is now complete and operational. Though a complaint was made to Punjab Information Commission in July 2007, no hearing has taken place yet. "The Commission took more than four and a half months to communicate the complaint number and send notice of first hearing on a complaint I had filed against Patiala Deputy Commissioner. This, despite nine full-time information commissioners working in Punjab," says Hitender Jain.
"The information commission does not have any legal binding to dispose of second appeals and complaints within a specific time period, but if the commission itself delays in giving orders, then it will have no moral authority to impose time limits on PIOs at various government departments, " says Hemant Goswami, the chairperson of Burning Brain Society.
Ajit Tomar of Citizens Voice, a group based in Bhiwani, Haryana, says the situation is worse in their state. "There is inordinate and unexplainable delay in deciding appeals and when it comes to big cases of corruption, the commissioners prefer to adjourn the cases instead of directing public authorities to provide information. The bureaucrats or government officers, if ever called for the hearing, are given VVIP treatment and that's the reason why only five CPIOs have been directed to pay penalty in the past two years," he says.
TRANSPARENCY IN APPOINTMENT
Punjab and Haryana High Court lawyer H.C. Arora has recently filed a petition seeking appointment of Central and state Chief Informa tion Commissioners by Chief Justices of Supreme Court and High Courts, respectively. "Bureaucrats are supposed to judge the appeals against the state government, which has appointed them. It's natural for bias to creep in," he says.
"No applications were ever called for appointment and no request was ever sent by the state commission to the government for the additional information commissioners. The selection was done in a most clandestine manner. Four appointments were made just a few days before the election in December 2006 to which the then leader of Opposition, Prakash Singh Badal, had written a dissenting note in the minutes of the meeting stating that the appointment should be decided after the elections," Jain says.
Calling for overhauling of the whole system, Arora says there is a provision for training of information officers, most of them remain ill informed about the RTI Act. "And they are supposed to be the guides to general public for filing applications, " he adds.