Should we say ‘Happy 18th Birthday’ to the Right To Information (RTI) Act? Yes, from the citizens’ viewpoint as, despite the opaqueness shown by all public authorities (PA), despite pending second appeals in information commissions across the country and despite the government having further diluted its strength, the enthusiasm of the citizenry to use this sunshine law—to the tune of 5.3mn (million)-5.5mn applications per year—is encouraging.
The RTI Act would have been many times more effective and powerful if proactive disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act had been put up and updated from time to time on all websites of government departments termed as public authorities. This is mandatory but is deliberately kept on the back-burner.
States RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, “The government babus and several weak information commissions have ensured that transparency through information is not accessible to the common man. If you surf any of the websites of the Central or the state governments which are under the RTI Act, you will find just meagre information on proactive disclosures under section 4 – i.e., of names of public information officers or the contents of different sections of this law. You will barely find uploading of crucial documents like tenders, expenditure of public projects/ schemes/ concessions or copies of signed agreements with contractors. As for Maharashtra, despite a state-level circular directing all public authorities from the Zilla Parishad level upwards to have an RTI open day every Monday for inspection of files by citizens, it has been gathering dust.”
Former central information commissioner (CIC) professor Sridhar Acharyulu, in an earlier interview to Moneylife, was full of praise for citizens who use the RTI Act. He says, “Approximately 90% of RTI is being positively used and 90% of the PIOs are giving information. There should be a comprehensive study by an objective organisation to assess the positives of the RTI Act which has not been done so far. I feel critical reviews and criticism are also correct but, in the name of criticism, we shouldn't ignore the positive benefits that really arise out of the use of RTI. Let the nation not get an impression that RTI is a failure because it really isn't true. RTI is not a failure. It’s a resounding and enormous success.”
However, in the absence of the implementation of all the 17 disclosure clauses under Section 4 of the RTI Act, the RTI applicant is forced to file an application under Section 6. The timeline for such an application may go to the mandatory 30 days for the PIO to reply, another 45 days if it goes in for a first appeal and then for several months if the RTI applicant files a second appeal with the information commissions.
RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj says, “Almost 18 years after the RTI Act was implemented, experience in India suggests that the functioning of information commissions is a major bottleneck in the effective implementation of the RTI law. A large backlog of appeals and complaints in many commissions across the country has resulted in inordinate delays in the disposal of cases, which render the law ineffective. One of the primary reasons for the backlogs is the failure of Central and state governments to take timely action to appoint information commissioners to the central information commission and state information commissions, respectively.”
RTI experts also blame the information commissioners for being extremely reluctant to impose penalties on erring officials for violations of the law. As per the observations of this writer, the PIO is given an opportunity to defend himself in case the CIC slams a penalty on him, which is deducted from his salary. Either the hearing is inordinately delayed or his penalty is waived. This encourages them to be casual in providing RTI replies. As a good example, SIC Rahul Singh of Madhya Pradesh has given some stern orders of penalty to PIOs for not providing information.
While the Congress government, in the earlier days of RTI, attempted to remove file notings from the RTI Act but did not succeed, two regressive amendments to the RTI Act in the past five years—in 2019 and 2023—severely diluted the law.
Ms Bharadwaj says, “The 2019 amendments dealt a blow to the autonomy of information commissions by empowering the Central government to determine the tenure, salaries and terms of service of all information commissioners in the country. In August 2023, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act (DPDP Act) was passed which included an explicit provision to amend section 8(1)(j) of the RTI law to exempt all personal information from disclosure. Further, the DPDP Act deleted the proviso to section 8(1) which stated that ‘information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person’.”
According to former CIC and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi, “Many honest officers and commissioners would have given information if it was not covered by the exemption. Section 44(3) of the Data Protection Bill amends the RTI Act Section 8 (1)(j) to read as exempting (j) information which relates to personal information. With this amendment, all information which can be related to a person could be legally denied. Most information could be shown as being related to a person and hence the law would become a right to deny information for PIOs who do not wish to give information. Thus, RTI would become an RDI: Right to Deny Information, rendering it an ineffective tool. As per section 38(2), it will override all existing laws. Thus, it would override the RTI Act as well. This will make it extremely difficult for an official to disclose information, since he would have to decide whether providing the information demanded is likely to run foul of the Data Protection Act. Given the fact that the Data Protection Act has a provision for a maximum penalty of Rs250 crore, the normal action will be denial of information. This appears to be a right to DENY information masquerading as a Digital Personal Data Protection bill. This is a serious threat to our fundamental right and our democracy.”
So, it is an 18th birthday with mixed feelings. We can only say bravo to citizens who are sailing against a rough current of information denial—so retrograde for our democracy.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)