In an election year, the proper functioning of information commissions becomes even more crucial.
INFORMATION enhances both the quality of life and the manner in which citizens express themselves. Therefore, the right to information flows out of both Article19 (right to freedom of speech and expression) and Article21 (right to life) of the Indian Constitution.
InState of UP versus Raj Narain (1975), the Supreme Court observed, “The responsibility of officials to explain and to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression and corruption.”
The Act lays down “informed citizenry” and “transparency” as two ideals of democracy that also aid in containing corruption and holding governments accountable.
Under Section 12, the RTI Act provides for the constitution of the Central Information Commission (CIC) by the Union government and the constitution of state Information Commissions (SICs) under Section 15 of the Act.
Information commissions consist of one chief information commissioner and not more than ten other information commissioners.
The information commissions are the final appellate authority in facilitating people’s access to information under the control of public authorities.
Section 18 of the Act provides that information commissions are authorised to receive and act upon complaints from those who are unable to access information from Central or state public information officers or who have been refused access to any information requested under the Act.
Information commissions are also authorised to receive complaints from those who have not been given a response to a request for information within the specified time or who believe that they have been given incomplete, misleading or false information under the Act or in respect of any other matter relating to access to records.
A 2019amendment has allegedly diluted the autonomy of information commissions. The amendment authorises the Union government to determine the tenure, salaries and terms of service of all information commissioners.
Further, theDigital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, in its Section 44 (3), deletes the proviso to Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, which completely bars the disclosure of personal information. Thus, information commissions can decline to provide any information relating to a person.
Additionally, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act removes a proviso from Section 8(1) of the RTI Act that states that information that cannot be denied to the Parliament or a state legislature will not be denied to an individual person.
Citizens can, therefore, no longer have the right to access the same information that the Parliament or a state legislature has access to.
The changes in law have come along with deadlyattacks on RTI activists.
Allegedly, information commissions also have a “poor record” in disclosing information sought by the victims. It isalleged that the role of public information officers is diluted, where officers are found to not be decision-makers in responding to RTI requests.
Further, it isclaimed that although Section 12(5) of the Act provides that experts from the fields of law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance should be appointed as information commissioners, retired bureaucrats are favoured for the role of the CIC.
Satark Nagrik Sangatham’s report
Satark Nagrik Sangatham, a citizen-led initiative that aims to promote transparency and accountability in government, has published a report detailing critical findings on the functioning of information commissions constituted under the RTI Act.
The report, titled Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2022-23, says that four to six million RTI applications are filed across the country in a year.
Marking 18 years since the RTI Act was implemented, Satark Nagrik Sangatham’s report flags a considerable backlog of appeals and complaints with information commissions.
The report also points out the reluctance of the commission to impose penalties on officials violating the law.
The report is based on information gathered from 174 RTI applications filed with 29 information commissions.
The information collected by Satark Nagrik Sangatham includes the number of serving commissioners, the number of appeals and complaints registered and dealt with, the quantum of penalties imposed, and the quantum of penalties imposed for the period July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023.
The report is also based on the information collected on the number of complaints pending on July 30 this year, the number of cases where disciplinary action was recommended by the information commissions and the latest year for which the annual report of the information commission was published.
Findings of the report
Defunct, vacant and understaffed information commissions
According to Sections 12 and 15 of the RTI Act, the Central and state information commissions shall comprise a chief information commissioner and not more than ten information commissioners.
Access to central and state information commissions ensures a remedy for citizens to approach an independent appellant mechanism when their fundamental right to information is denied.
The report highlights that four information commissions— Jharkhand, Tripura, Telangana and Mizoram— were found completely defunct. Glaringly, the information commission of Jharkhand has been defunct for over three years.
The report points out that six commissions are functioning without a chief information commissioner, with the state information commission of Manipur functioning without a chief for 56 months.
On the leading cause of the large number of pending appeals and complaints, the report lists seven information commissions, including the Central Information Commission, that are functioning at “reduced capacity”.
For instance, functioning with a mere four information commissioners, the state information Commission of Maharashtra saw a backlog of 115,524 pending appeals and complaints in December 2022, the report says.
Pending appeals and complaints
According to the report, as of June 30 this year, the number of appeals and complaints stood at a considerable 321, 537, with the state information commission of Maharashtra seeing the highest number of pending appeals.
On the current rate of disposal of appeals, the report states that an appeal or a complaint filed with the state information commission of West Bengal on July 1 this year would take 24 years to be disposed of. This would be followed by the commissions of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, requiring an estimated time of four years for the disposal of an appeal or complaint.
Penalties for erring officials
Under Section 19(8)(b) of the RTI Act, information commissions are conferred with the power to mandate public authorities to compensate complainants for any loss suffered.
Section 20 of the Act authorises information commissions to impose a penalty of fine on public information officers who refused to receive an application of information or with malafide intention denied the request or gave incorrect or incomplete information.
According to the report, the 23 commissions imposed a penalty in a total of 8,074 cases, which amount to a meagre 9 percent of the cases where penalties were potentially impossible.
Section 25 of the RTI Act mandates the information commissions to prepare a report every year covering several factors including the number of requests made to each public authority, the number of decisions where applicants were not entitled to access to documents pursuant to the requests, the number of appeals referred to the information commissions and the particulars of any disciplinary action taken against any officer.
According to the report’s analysis, alarmingly, only the Central Information Commission and the seven state information commissions— Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim— have published their annual reports for 2022.
Among those commissions that have not published their annual reports for the longest period, the report notes that the state information commission of Karnataka has failed to publish its annual report since 2016–17.
As the report notes, the RTI Act empowers people to engage meaningfully in democracy and hold the government accountable. “It [the RTI Act] has also been used to question the highest authorities of the country, their performance, their decisions and their conduct,” the report says.
Information commissions play an important role in executing the promises of the ideals of the RTI Act. Their effective functioning remains an important marker in gauging the functioning of the RTI Act by holding the erring authorities accountable.
RTI has beenconsidered an important tool for the accountability of political parties through seeking disclosure of information on electoral candidates, including campaign financing.
In view of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in 2024, the importance of RTI as a tool for the functioning of a healthy democracy becomes even more crucial.