According to the report card, information commissions across the country suffer from several issues such as lack of diversity among information commissioners, large number of cases being returned by the commissions, tardy disposal rates, lack of timely and transparent appointments, and large backlogs.
SATARK Nagrik Sangathan (‘SNS’), a citizen’s group working to promote transparency and accountability in government, has published a report card on the performance of the 29 information commissions set up under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (‘RTI Act’) across the country.
The report raised several legitimate concerns about the management and performance of these commissions, which are a vital cog in the implementation of the RTI Act and, by extension, of citizens’ right to information.
It brings out the lack of diversity in the composition of information commissions, as nearly 60 per cent of the state information commissioners are retired government officials. Moreover, only 10 per cent of all state information commissioners across the country have ever been women. Currently, no state commission is headed by a woman.
A large number of cases being returned by information commissions without passing any orders, the report also flags. The Chief Information Commission (‘CIC’), the Uttar Pradesh State Information Commission and the Andhra Pradesh State Information Commission returned around 40 per cent of the appeals/complaints received by them.
Most of the commissions also have an extremely low rate of disposal per commissioner. For instance, the report points out that the West Bengal Information Commission had an annual average disposal rate of 222 cases per commissioner (that is, each commissioner effectively disposed less than one case a day), with more than 10,000 cases pending. Of all the 29 information commissions, only the CIC has adopted a norm regarding the number of appeals/complaints to be disposed by each commissioner in one year.
The information commissions also suffer from a lack of timely and transparent appointments, according to the report. Many commissions are functioning at reduced capacity and without a Chief Information Commissioner due to governments not filling vacancies in a timely manner. The state information commissions of Jharkhand and Tripura are completely defunct, as no new commissioners have been appointed upon the incumbents demitting office.
The low disposal rates and vacancies in commissions, unsurprisingly, lead to a large backlog of cases and a long waiting time for information seekers. For example, the number of appeals and complaints pending as on June 30 this year in the 26 information commissions, from which data was obtained, stood at 3.14 lakh. The Maharashtra Information Commission, with an alarming backlog of nearly one lakh, had the highest number of appeals/complaints pending as of June 30.
People are having to wait for months, and sometimes even years, to get their case heard, as per the report. The estimated waiting time for disposal of a new case in the West Bengal Information Commission was found to be 24 years and 3 months. In the Odisha and Maharashtra Information Commissions, the estimated time for disposal was more than five years. The report’s assessment shows that 12 commissions would take one year or more to dispose of a matter.
Additionally, penalty was imposed in just three per cent of the cases disposed of by the information commissions. The Tamil Nadu Information Commission was found to have the worst performing information commission in terms of responsiveness under the RTI Act, furnishing only 14 per cent of the information sought. Most of the information – including regarding the number of appeals and complaints dealt with by the commission, details of penalty imposed and compensation awarded – was denied on the basis that the information could be provided only “after getting the approval of State Legislative Assembly”, though no such provisions exists in the RTI Act.