Is RTI Act being weakened?
There is a need to distinguish between “populism” and “realism”. Attention of the public is drawn to some of the practical aspects governing the implementation of the Act that are faced by the Commission in its day to day hearings. Instead of resorting to the populist discourse surrounding the issue of likely amendments to the RTI Act, 2005, there is an imminent need to ponder over realistic/ pragmatic issues confronting the implementation of the provisions of the Act…. Increasingly, the applicants are seeking redressal of their personal grievances and adjudication of disputes beyond the jurisdiction of the Commission.
Much is being debated in the media and other forums with regard to undermining transparency and accountability as envisaged under the RTI Act. It needs to be clearly understood that transparency and accountability are the two fundamental principles of the democratic
The RTI Act, 2005, was enacted by the Parliament of India on 15 June, 2005 as a Sunshine Act to empower the common man with the right to secure access to information under the control of public authorities at a nominal fee of Rs. 10/- only. The Right to Information owes its genesis to Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India and the Hon’ble Supreme Court in a catena of judgements over four decades expounded the principle under the aforementioned article.
The Preamble/ Short Title of the RTI Act, 2005, recognizes the presence of harmonization of conflicting interest in the form of creating an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning vis a vis the other public interest i.e., efficient operations of the Governments, optimum use of limited fiscal resources and the preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information. The Act also serves as an effective tool to serve the purpose of “Good Governance” taking into consideration the interest of each and every individual.
I sincerely respect the views of each and every stakeholder involved in the ecosystem of the RTI mechanism. However, there is a need to distinguish between “populism” and “realism”. Attention of the public is drawn to some of the practical aspects governing the implementation of the Act that are faced by the Commission in its day to day hearings. Instead of resorting to the populist discourse surrounding the issue of likely amendments to the RTI Act, 2005, there is an imminent need to ponder over realistic/ pragmatic issues confronting the implementation of the provisions of the Act. It has been observed that there is a paradigm shift in understanding of the meaning of “information” as contained in Section 2 (f) and (j) of
the RTI Act. Increasingly, the applicants are seeking redressal of their personal grievances and adjudication of disputes beyond the jurisdiction of the Commission.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court in its landmark ruling in CBSE and Anr. vs. Aditya Bandopadhyay and Ors (SC, 2011) decided that the RTI Act could only provide information that was available and existing. In the matter of Union of India v. Namit Sharma (SC, 2013) it was held that “the Information Commission does not decide a dispute between two or more parties concerning their legal rights other than their right to get information in possession of a public authority”. Time and again several Courts have defined the jurisdictional powers of the Commission in this respect (for example the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi in Shobha Vijender vs. Chief Information Commissioner (2016) Sher Singh Rawat vs. Chief Information Commissioner (2017) and Govt. of NCT vs. Rajendra Prasad (2017) and held that the CIC is neither required to nor has the jurisdiction to examine any other controversy or disputes.
Nonetheless, the Commission encounters adjudication of several personal issues related to service disputes, pay and pension fixation, seniority, grant of promotion, etc and issues relating to settlement of matrimonial disputes; requests for time bound completions of Tax Evasion Petitions (TEPs), accident related claims and compensation, etc where the applicants insist upon redressal of their personal grievances. Should the mandate of the Commission include such matters is an issue for public discourse!
Another aspect for consideration revolves around the power and procedure for deciding cases of non-compliance of Commission’s orders and associated penal provisions. There is also an urgent need to re-assess the understanding of the term Public Good/ Public Interest in the broader context of the ever evolving nature of the RTI mechanism.
With regard to the sharing of experiences of the ICs, the Commission has an established institutionalised mechanism for examining and analysing various aspects of the RTI Act, 2005 and its implementation through weekly meetings, conventions, seminars, etc. A point of view or dissent, if any, could be aired by any of the Information Commissioners through the structured mechanism rather than approaching the media directly. Thus, the tenets of judicial conduct and discipline are also equally important for the Commission to enable the public to repose its trust, faith and confidence in its functioning. The proposed amendments never featured in the discussions of the Commission and I am confident that the Commission as and when requested, would take a balanced and considered view in this regard.
At the centre-stage of the discussion, is the need to focus on re-assessing the efficaciousness of the RTI mechanism on the substantive issues of providing information and enforcing the provisions of the Act and awareness of both the applicants and the Respondents at various levels through periodic seminars, workshops, etc.
Experience indicates that even after more than a decade after the
promulgation of the Act, we find that the stakeholders remain oblivious of their rights and obligations under the RTI Act, 2005. On several occasions it is found that the PIOs pass non-reasoned orders, do not adhere to the timelines prescribed under the Act or provide vague, incomplete and misleading information. The Commission also encounters cases of numerous Applications filed by a single applicant on the same subject matter causing disproportionate diversion of resources of the Public Authorities.
For an informed citizenry, the focus of the debate should engage all stakeholders including public spirited individuals, youth organisations and non-governmental organisations to come forward and create awareness about the provisions of the Act so that the RTI mechanism could be strengthened to usher in a new era of transparency, accountability and good governance in the country. It would not be out of place to state that the RTI Act should also be considered to be introduced as a subject for education at the school level itself to sensitize the younger generation.
¹ The Author is an Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission. The views expressed herein are personal.