RTI – CIC, RTI Backlog, etc.

[op-ed snap] Hamstringing the RTI Actop-ed snap


Note4students

Mains Paper 2: Governance | Important aspects of governance, transparency & accountability

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: RTI Act, CIC (Appointment, removal, functions)

Mains level: Government’s proposed amendments to dilute the RTI act and associated harms


Context

Dilution of RTI Act

  1. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, operationalised in October 2005, was seen as a powerful tool for citizen empowerment
  2. It showed an early promise by exposing wrongdoings at high places and bringing to limelight various scams
  3. The act now faces multiple challenges

Lacunae in the act

  1. The Act did not give adequate authority to the Information Commissions to enforce their decisions
  2. Besides awarding compensation to an applicant for any loss suffered, the commissions can direct public authorities to take the steps necessary to comply with the Act but are helpless if such directions are ignored
  3. If an officer fails to fulfil his duty, the commission can either impose a maximum penalty of ₹25,000 or recommend disciplinary action against him
  4. This deterrent works only when the piece of information lies at the lower levels; it is ineffective in many cases where the information relates to higher levels of government
  5. Section 4 of the RTI Act requires Suo motu disclosure of a lot of information by each public authority. However, such disclosures have remained less than satisfactory

Proposed amendments to the Act

  1. The government proposes to do away with the equivalence of the Central Information Commissioners with the Election Commissioners on the ground that the two have different mandates
  2. The government also proposes to replace the existing fixed five-year tenure of the Information Commissioners with a tenure as may be prescribed by it
  3. The Act struck a balance between privacy and transparency by barring the disclosure of personal information if it has no relationship to any public activity or would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy
  4. The Justice Srikrishna Committee has proposed an amendment that would broaden the definition of ‘harm’, restricting disclosure of personal information even where it may be clearly linked to some public activity

Impact of proposed amendments

  1. The underlying assumption that transparency is less important for a democracy than the holding of free and fair elections is preposterous
  2. The proposal to alter tenure would make the tenure a largesse to be bestowed by the government. This would be detrimental to the independence and authority of the Information Commissions

Lack of staff due to delay in appointments

  1. The Central and State Information Commissions have been functioning with less than their prescribed maximum strength of eleven because governments have dragged their feet on appointing commissioners
  2. This leads to delay in disposal of cases, which is compounded by the backlog in the High Courts, where a number of decisions of the commission are challenged

Misuse of the act

  1. The clogging of the RTI system is also because a number of applicants, usually disgruntled employees of public institutions, ask frivolous queries
  2. Their applications have unfortunately continued to exist alongside those of numerous RTI activists who have done commendable work, often risking their life and limb

Way forward

  1. The RTI Act continues to render yeoman service in providing information to citizens.
  2. Though its aim is not to create a grievance redressal mechanism, the notices from Information Commissions often spur the public authorities to redress grievances
  3. If the issues listed above are not addressed, this sunshine law will lose its promise, particularly in terms of ensuring transparency at higher levels of governance
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