While the COVID-19 pandemic, in its first avatar in 2020, mercilessly stalled most of the activities all over the world, India’s enthusiastic Right to Information (RTI) users ensured that they continued to demand transparency, albeit with a marginal fall of only 2.95% in their applications. What’s noteworthy is that 2019-20 had recorded the highest number of RTIs ever filed with public authorities of the Central government, since the enforcement of the law in 2005 and so, the marginal decrease in 2020-21 is, in fact, encouraging.
As per the central information commission’s (CIC's) annual report (AR) of 2020-21, which has just been uploaded on its website, 1,333,802 (about 1.33 million) RTI applications were received across the reporting public authorities of the country in 2020-21, which is 2.95% fewer RTIs than the 2019-20 figure of Rs13,74,315 (about 13.74 lakh).
Transparency advocator Venkatesh Nayak who has compiled a comparison of the latest AR with that of 2019-2020 says, “Readers may take note of the fact that the 2020-21 AR of the CIC is the first one which spans an entire year of the pandemic. Therefore, statistics regarding the submission and disposal of RTI applications and appeals are of particular interest to RTI-watchers; given the extended period of lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the pandemic and the work from home arrangement, which affected the performance of hundreds of public authorities that were not at the frontline of the containment exercise.”
The ministry of finance, under which come public authorities like banks, insurance companies and other finance and tax-related departments saw the maximum fall in RTI applications during the pandemic year, with 21,657 fewer RTI applications coming its way in 2020-21 (it had received 19,2204 RTI applications in 2019-2020 and 170,547 in 2020-2021). The second in line was the ministry of corporate affairs reporting a shortfall of 20,269 RTI applications compared with the 2019-20 figure. (It had received 83,602 RTI applications in 2019-2020 and 63,333 applications in 2020-2021).
Other ministries which had a shortfall compared to 2019-20 are as follows: ministry of road transport (lesser by 17,986 RTI applications), ministry of railways (lesser by 17,972 RTI applications), ministry of human resource development (lesser by 8,711 RTI applications) and the ministry of defence and Delhi police (lesser by 5,812 applications). Delhi police also reported a shortfall of 5,812 RTI applications in 2020-21.
The Supreme Court received 1,011 fewer RTI applications in 2020-21 as compared with those in the previous year. The prime minister’s office’s 2020-21 total was 552 fewer than the previous year’s figure while Rashtrapati Bhawan received 461 fewer RTIs during the pandemic year.
While the downward trend in the number of RTI applications filed in 2020-21 is noticeable across several ministries and departments, some of them reported a rising trend as well when compared with 2019-20. No prizes for guessing that heading this list is the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW) which reported a 79.09% increase in RTIs during the pandemic year (60,423) as compared to those in 2019-20 (33,738 RTIs).
Ministries and public authorities which reported up to 50% increase in RTIs during the pandemic year are: the ministry of external affairs (48.11%); ministry of labour and employment (46.90%); ministry of rural development (41.18%); ministry of electronics and information technology (39.61%); ministry of civil aviation (33.94%); ministry of home affairs (33.37%).
Those public authorities, which reported over 50%, were the ministry of steel which reported an increase of 149.40% and the ministry of textiles, 54.64%. Nayak observes: “What is interesting is that both the ministries which were involved in coordinating relief efforts (health, labour, home etc.) and those looking after infrastructure, reported a hike.’’
As per the annual report, other prominent public authorities which reported a significant increase in RTI applications received during the first year of the pandemic are: NITI Aayog at 52.68%, Delhi High Court at 42.97%, Indian Air Force at 40.70% and the Cabinet secretariat at 2.65% compared with those in 2019-20. The UT of Lakshadweep reported an increase of 40.43% in 2020-21 compared with the previous year's.
Mr Nayak further observed: “The total figures presented in the annual report include the RTI application statistics from public authorities of Union Territories (UTs) as well. So, if the figure of 1.25 lakh (125,000) RTI applications filed with the UTs is deducted, the total figure for the central level public authorities, the number of RTIs filed with them falls to 12.08 lakh for 2020-21. Central level public authorities (minus UTs) received 12.39 lakh RTIs in 2019-20. So the reduction in the number of RTIs filed in 2020-21 is only 2.48%. It is significant in itself that the pandemic did not prove to be a dampener. Instead, people continued to seek information from various ministries much like before.’’
However, in his first set of observations, he lamented: “The CIC does not appear to have examined the data submitted by public authorities, ministries and departments adequately. After 16 years of enforcement of the RTI Act, the CIC must make the effort to redefine its role from being a mere accountant of RTI statistics to that of an auditor of the performance of ministries, departments and public authorities.”
(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”.)