Democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed,” declares the preamble of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
It also recognises the inherent conflict of interest the revelation of information in actual practice was likely to generate, as a disclosure of information might conflict with other public interests “including efficient operations of the governments, optimum use of limited fiscal resources and the preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information”.
Having considered the possible clash of interests, Parliament felt “it is necessary to harmonise these conflicting interests while preserving the paramountcy of the democratic ideal” and “therefore, it is expedient to provide for furnishing certain information to citizens who desire to have it”.
But 14 years on, it appears the Executive has failed to live up to the expectations of the Legislature in implementing the law as the former failed to harmonise conflicting interests, forcing citizens to seek judicial intervention for enforcement of their right to information.
The apex court’s February 15 verdict directing the government to fill vacancies in the Central Information Commission and state information commissions in a timely and transparent manner should be taken as a much needed judicial nudge.
A Bench headed by Justice AK Sikri asked the government to ensure that non-bureaucrats were also appointed commissioners in the Central and state information commissions.
The top court made it clear that the terms and conditions of appointment, as mentioned in Section 13(5) of RTI Act, of the CIC and information commissioners shall be the same as applicable to the Chief Election Commissioner/Election Commissioners.
This assumes significance in view of recent advertisements put out by the DoPT that didn’t specify the terms and conditions of appointments of CIC and information commissioners.
The fact that almost 60 lakh RTI applications are filed every year makes this Act the most popular law in India. It has proved to be a weapon in the hands of common man as RTI has exposed corruption in public life. The Adarsh housing scam and Commonwealth Games scam were exposed through RTI.
But huge vacancies in the Central Information Commission and state information commissions and the resultant pendency have gone against citizens’ right to information – which the Supreme Court declared a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
The RTI Act is a time-bound legislation and prescribes statutory timelines for providing information. When that is not provided, or the applicant is aggrieved by the nature of response received, she/he can file an appeal with the designated First Appellate Authority.
The First Appellate Authority is obligated to dispose of such an appeal within 45 days. The reading of Sections 7 and 19 of the RTI Act makes it clear that it is a time-bound legislation for effectively exercising the fundamental right to information under Article 19 of the Constitution.
However, the CIC and SICs are taking many months, and in some cases even years, to decide appeals and complaints due to accumulation of pending appeals/complaints, thanks to huge vacancies in SICs across India. There appeared to be an attempt to frustrate the very purpose of seeking information.
The “Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India” published in March 2018 found that eight state information commissions had a waiting time of more than a year for an appeal/complaint to be heard.
The Act provides for one Chief Information Commissioner and up to 10 information commissioners. But most of the states had much lesser number of information commissioners, which increased workload on existing ones.
Four posts of information commissioners are vacant in the CIC where more than 23,500 appeals and complaints were pending, as on April 4, 2018. In West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, there were only three information commissioners, including the chief information commissioner, against the sanctioned strength of 11. Similarly, Odisha had only four information commissioners, including the chief information commissioner.
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