Right to Information – RTI – journey of 8 years
Right to Information (RTI) Act is landmark legislation which was enacted in India in the year 2005 which has completed eight years recently. It has brought radical change in the country’s administration and society. With the help of RTI Act one can come to know about the working of the public authority. Earlier citizen were not aware about the affairs of public authority, thus it resulted in wide spread corruption in the system. RTI has completed 8 years recently and it carries many success stories in all over the country alongwith some bad instances in form of attacks on RTI activists and killing of them. RTI has helped many people especially at the grass root level such as public distribution system, public works etc. There are two types of commissions in the country one is Central Information Commission (CIC) and other one is State Information Commission (SIC). For central level public authority matter one has to approach CIC and for state level SIC in appeal and complaint process. Generally RTI application/appeal is filled manually in office of public authorities and state commissions’ offices respectively but for last couple of years some public authorities and commissions have implemented online RTI application/appeal mechanism which saves lot of time and money ultimately resulting in smooth administration of Act. Central Information Commission, New Delhi and Department of Personnel and Training, New Delhi has implemented online application/appeal system effectively. However online RTI application/appeal system in India is in the nascent stage.
Most importantly under Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act, public authorities are under obligation to publish suo-moto information on office board, information documents, websites etc. For getting information given in Section 4(1)(b), one need not to apply for RTI application. He can get that information given under suo-moto disclosure. As per the Chief Information Commission of Himachal Pradesh, Bhim Sen, “The Act had been enforced for more than eight years and it was enough time for concerned officials to get familiarized with it. Apart from basic information, this section enabled commoners with right to seek information about functioning of the government departments”. He also added that commission could not take suo-moto action against public authorities which had not disclosed information until receiving any complaint.
There are many RTI activists in the country who are making all effort to improve governance system in India by way of exposing maladministration, mismanagement with the help of RTI. They are playing crucial role in exposing corruption in the country. There is also a darker side of this activism i.e. attacks on RTI activists and sometime killings of them. Data gleaned by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) shows Maharashtra has seen 53 attacks on RTI activists, including nine cases of murder, over the last eight years. Gujarat comes second with 34 attacks, including 3 murders. Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka follow with over 10 reported attacks on RTI activists during the last eight years. The data points to around 251 cases across India where people were either attacked, murdered, physically or mentally harassed or had their property damaged because of the information they sought under RTI. Whistle Blower Bill is pending in Rajya Sabha which will help to stop killings of RTI Activists.The Supreme Court on November 19, 2012 had expressed concern over the murders of and attacks on RTI activists and whistle-blowers. It said the state governments were responsible for their security and safety. “Law and order is a state subject. It is for the state governments to take action. We cannot issue guidelines,” said the bench.
Recent Scenario of RTI in Various States in India
In this part I will discuss about the best practices followed by Statesin India so that standardization can be done at Central and State level. Followings are some best practices to be followed by states in India.
1. Various options for RTI fees payment
Various options for fees payment should be given to RTI applicant as provided under Rule 3(2) of Gujarat Right to Information Rules, 2010. As per this rule one can make payment in Cash, Demand Draft, Indian Postal Order, Non-Judicial Stamp Paper, Stamping through franking, electronic franking, court fees stamp, revenue stamp, challan credited in government treasury. Moreover As per Rule 3 of Gujarat Right to Information Rules, 2010, person applying through the e-media shall have to pay the fees within seven days from the date of application failing which the application shall be treated as withdrawn.
2. Benches of commission in the state.
There should be enough number of benches of commission in the state for hassles free appeal/complain hearing for party by commission. Sometime it becomes very difficult for a person coming from one end of state to attend hearing in another part of state. I had a hearing few months back at office of Gujarat State Information Commission, Gandhinagar. I went Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar office for hearing. When I reached there was notice that Commissioner has fallen ill. That was total waste of time and money. Suppose a person coming from South Gujarat or Kutchh area and this type of situation arise, they will surely in great distress. In Maharashtra Main office of commission is at Mumbai and others are at Nagpur, Aurangabad, Pune, Nashik, New Bombay, Amravati. Other states also follow this practice rather than establishing one office at particular place.
3. Video conferencing facility.
If a State is not able to opening new benches in its state, it can provide video conferencing facility in the Office of State Information Commission so that parties can be present for hearing at the specified centre e.g. National Informatics Centre (NIC) in the districts. Haryana Information Commission started hearing pleas of RTI applicants through video conferencing. According to Information Commissioner Urvashi Gulati “We are here to make the life of people convenient. For instances if somebody is very old and cannot travel from far-flung areas of Haryana to Chandigarh, such a liberty granted to those applicants. Many people who come to us are generally very poor and cannot afford the travel expenses. Thus we have started allowing them to come through video conferencing or even phone”
4. RTI Helpline/Facilitation Centre.
Bihar Government started RTI Call Centre called Jaankari. Jaankari was set up in January 2007 and it was awarded as the Best E-governance initiative by the Government of India. There are two numbers, one for RTI Application (155311) and the other one is RTI Helpline (155310). An RTI application and appeal fee of Rs. 10 is included in telephone bill service provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL).From my view point this is most convenient method of RTI application so far.
5. RTI Stamp to be introduced for easy payment for RTI fees.
To ease RTI fees payment, Central Information Commission has asked the department of post to issue RTI Stamps of Rs. 10 denomination and open separate counters for accepting the application at its 1.5 lakh post offices. Many people finding difficulty in making payment for RTI fees. For cash payment one has to go to the office of public authority which is time consuming and total wastage of money. If one get the draft made from bank, he/she will have to pay Rs. 25 to Rs. 40 for getting draft of Rs. 10/20 etc. which is no way sensible from any point of view. One more challenging thing in getting draft which is in whose favour draft to be made. Most of the office of public authorities do not clearly mention that in whose favour draft to be made on their website or in any official documents. I personally use Indian Postal Order (IPO) for my RTI application as it is very convenient and money saving affair e.g. if one get the IPO of Rs. 10, he/she has to pay Rs. 11 only. One can send IPO with RTI application without writing name of person or designation in whose favour IPO to me made if he/she fails to get the details of it. Office of Public Authority fills the required details and encash the IPO. The IPO is available in eight denomination i.e. 1, 2, 5, 7 10, 20, 50, 100. But IPO is not desirable on government’s point of view as government spends Rs. 22 on cashing a postal order of Rs. 10.
RTI Applications and Findings
I filed a RTI Application in the office of Central Information Commissions (CIC), New Delhi in October 2013 asking information about pendency of appeals, complaints etc.
Followings are some findings.
Commission does not compile statistics separately for appeals and complaints. Only details of 2005-2006 provided. As on October 2013 total 24,326 cases are pending for disposal. Commission has not details regarding appeals, complaints pending since 2005. No information available regarding penalty (Sec 20(1)), compensation (Sec 19(8) (b)) awarded and disciplinary action (Sec 20(2)) taken under RTI Act, 2005. There is vacancy of 6 Information Commissioners and 20 staff members. It is clear from this reply that CIC itself is not maintaining required data which it supposed to have. It also collects and compiles return from offices of information commissions across the country but it itself failed to maintain it.
Same type of application I filed in the office of Gujarat State Information Commission (GSIC), Gandhinagar in October 2013 and followings are some findings.
From October 2005 to October 2013 total 39,068 cases (30,057 Appeals + 9,011 Complaints) received and 28,750 disposed (20,244 Appeals + 8,506 Complaints). As on October 31, 2013 total 10318 cases pending with the commission. Commission does not have proper information of penalty levied, compensation awarded, disciplinary action taken against public authority officer etc.
I also asked status of my some appeals filed in above both of the offices and it is found that appeal files are missing from the office.
Conclusion & Recommendation
As we seen in above discussion that after eight years of RTI Act in India, it has not developed so far as it was supposed to. There is lacuna in policies both at central and state level regarding effective implementation of RTI act.Lot of disparity can be seen in RTI rules of various states. Some states are doing very good job in development of RTI Act but some are not taking much interest in flourishing RTI act in the state.
Followings are some recommendations for development of RTI Act in India.
- Full disclosure (Pro-active)under Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act.
- RTI application/appeal formats standardization.
- Various payment options for RTI application fees.
- Benches of Commission to be established in the state as per necessity.
- Whistle Blower’s Bill to be passed at the earliest.
- Video conferencing facility to be installed in Commission’s office for hearing appeal/complaint.
- Vacancies of Information Commissioners to be filled up at the earliest both at the Central Level and State Level. Appeals, Complaints are pending for months/years because of existing vacancies.
- Robust Centralized Online RTI application/appeal mechanism to be set up.
- Faster letter dispatch from office of Commission. In most of the cases letter is prepared with a date, officials will sign the letter after few days putting date of signature and ultimately it will be dispatched after few days of official’s signature. This process takes 5-10 days.
- Helpline centre for RTI application/appeal to be set up.
- RTI Application facilitation centre to be set up at big public authority office.
- Intensive campaign for RTI Awareness as envisioned in Section 26 of RTI Act, 2005.
- SMS alert service to be started for hearing date. Reminder to be sent to parties 1-2 in advance.
Some special recommendations for application process.
For manual application
To facilitate manual RTI application, Central Government/State Government should provide for various options for fees payment in their respective RTI Rules. To avoid this all options, Department of Post should come up with RTI Stamp so that RTI fees payment can be streamlined and make it hassle free. Central Information Commission has already asked Department of Post to introduce RTI stamp and open counters for receiving application at post offices.
For online application
It has been observed that there is no centralized online process system for RTI application/appeal in the states. Hardly any states have come up with online RTI application/appeal filing which will save lot of time and money. Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions, Department of Personnel & Training, Government of India launched RTI web portal for online filing of RTI application in April 2013 covering only Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) initially but now almost all Ministries/Departments of Govt. of India have been covered. The application filed through this web portal would reach electronically to the Nodal Officer. The Nodal Officer shall access this portal at least twice in a day. He shall transmit the RTI application electronically to the concerned CPIO. In case the RTI application is not meant for department, the Nodal Officer shall transfer the application physically to the concerned public authority, under section 6(3) of the RTI Act. The applicant can pay the prescribed fee through Internet banking through State Bank of India and its associate banks or Credit/Debit card of Visa/Master. This website covers only central ministries/departments. This website should expand its scope and cover all offices of Central Public Authorities.
At State Level, department wise online application RTI process will not serve the purpose as sometimes a person will not be able to make out that which department is involved in the matter. I hereby propose a state level centralized online application/appeal process to make it hassles free. There will be a RTI portal for every state in India. After opening portal, there will be tab for each district. Clicking on district tab, there will be list of public authorities covered under those districts. In addition to that Talukas can be put under heading of districts to make RTI application/appeal more convenient. One can submit online application/appeal to concerned public authority on the said portal. In case where some public authorities are not covered in portal because of some reasons, one can submit RTI application/appeal to Facilitation Centre by filling up details of public authority. Facilitation Centre will forward that application to concerned public authority.
A wants to file RTI application in Gujarat University, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. He will open the Gujarat RTI portal; click on district Ahmedabad, there will be list of various public authorities, click on Gujarat University and proceed with application.
Figure 1 : Online RTI Application Flow