Right to Information has completed 10 years. But what has been the experience of these 10 years? Where is the implementation failing?
October 12th, 2015 marked the 10th anniversary of the implementation of the Right to Information Act (RTI) in the country. Enacted in 2005 as an implementation of the election promise of the UPA-1, the RTI act has since caught the imagination of citizens from across the spectrum like no other act has done in the history of Independent India. One major reason for whatever success it has seen is the ease of use. Unlike filing petitions in courts or applications to government departments, RTI application is way simpler to file. On this 10th anniversary, it’s a good time to look at the implementation and what needs to be done further to improve the implementation.
Awareness of the RTI act
The success of any law depends on efficient implementation which in turn depends on the awareness levels in citizens. According to a study done by RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RaaG) in 2013, the awareness levels about the act are still poor. Not more than 35% are aware of the act in rural areas and about 40% are aware of the act in urban areas.
One of primary reasons for the lack of awareness is the lack of publicity by the governments both at the center & the states. The publicity for the RTI act was never on par with other welfare schemes. For e.g., a scheme like the Jan Dhan Yojana is known to most people, because the government ensured that the information reached the beneficiaries through various platforms. Similar promotional activities are essential for the awareness of RTI act. While the central government does telecast a few advertisements, the state governments have been least interested. Dedicated RTI Programs like Janne ka Haque on Doordarshan should continue. Information flow in most rural areas of the country happens through teachers. Hence a lesson on RTI should be included in the higher classes so that both teachers & students learn about it. It is also heartening to note that the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) will start a Certificate & Diploma course on the RTI act. TV & Radio are two essential media that the government must utilize.
Utilization of the RTI act
As per estimates, about 40 lakh RTI applications are filed in the country every year in both central & state governments. This is still less than 0.5% of the entire population in the country. While the adoption has been higher in the urban areas, it is still low in the rural areas. Another major concern in the utilization of the RTI act is the issue of Gender. The RaaG study found out that a mere 8% of all the applications nationally were women. This ratio was abysmal in states like Rajasthan & Assam (4%) and Bihar (1%). It is surprising that the adoption is very low by women and there has been so scientific understanding of these abysmal numbers.
The bias in the utilization of the RTI act is also seen in the Rural –Urban divide. Hardly 1/4th of all the applicants are rural while the rest 3/4th are Urban. This is particularly important when close to 69% of the Indian population lives in rural areas as per the 2011 Census.
Special emphasis by the government both in respect of Women & Rural areas is the requirement of the day. The government could use the lakhs of self help groups in the villages as a medium to spread awareness about the act.
How are people using it?
Another interesting aspect of the 10 years is the way people are using this act. Broadly speaking, citizens are using this act in three ways,
- The act is largely being used as a way to address grievances in the government’s service delivery mechanism. Whenever there are gaps in the delivery of service, people are resorting to RTI as a means of knowing the reasons. The RTI application is today acting as a reactive tool for better delivery of services.
- The act is also being used to expose discretionary & arbitrary use of authority. This could sometimes result in loss of money to the exchequer resulting in scams. The greatest testimony for the efficacy of the RTI act is the BJP’s victory in 2014 general elections. These elections were fought on the plank of rampant corruption during the UPA-2 regime. And most of these scams exposed during this time were done using the RTI act.
- The act is also sometimes used a means to get information that could be used for advocacy or push the government to implement or make policy changes. Be it the data on farmer suicides or accidents or under trial prisoners in jails, this information has helped people lobby with the government for better policies or improvements in existing policies.
Though there are certain cases where the RTI act is being used as a tool for blackmail or for settling personal scores, these are negligible in number.
The Supply side issues
It cannot be denied that the government brought in the RTI act in 2005 without putting the adequate infrastructure or planning in place. Even till today, the continuous rise in the number of applications and other problems related to the supply side can be largely attributed to this lack of preparedness and lack of intent. Most Government officials at all levels look at the RTI act as an unnecessary burden on them and hence the least interest to implement the same. Some of the major issues that still stand unresolved are
Information & Record Management: Despite numerous initiatives, the record management in the government departments is in shambles. It gets worse as you go down the government hierarchy. Finding a record in a Mandal/Block level office is like navigating a maze. Unless there is proper record management, finding a record and providing information within the stipulated 30 days is going to be very difficult. Hence computerization of all records has to be done on war footing and all these records should be indexed so that they are searchable.
Implementation of Section 4: The people who drafted the RTI act were very pragmatic in including Section 4 in the RTI act. The idea was that proactive disclosure of the most important information by government machinery would reduce the need for citizens to separately seek information. Most studies confirm that more than 50% of the applications filed under the RTI act ask for information that should have been disclosed under Section 4. And more than 60% of the government offices do not have any kind of physical disclosures. Even in places, where the disclosure is made, the information is outdated. Like it is emphasized by a sub-committee of Information Commissioners, section 4 implementation is going to be a crucial piece in the success of the RTI act.
Working of the Information Commissions
The Information Commissions were envisioned as the watch dogs in the implementation of the RTI act. 10 years later, the commissions seem to be going the way of the Judiciary in terms of pendency. As on date, more than 35000 appeals/complaints are pending with the Central Information Commission. At the current rate of disposal, it might take a long time before these are cleared. By the end of 2013, close to 2 lakh appeals/complaints were pending in 23 different commissions. Close to 3 lakh appeals/complaints are being received in all the commissions in the country while only half of them are disposed every year. Coupled with the pendency is the lack of imposition of a penalty. In more than 90% of the cases analyzed by the RaaG study, penalty was not imposed where it was supposed to have been imposed. Unless the commissions buckle up and start working effectively, they might become the Achilles heel in the implementation of the act. At the same time, the government should make the process of selection of Information Commissioners more transparent. Close to 60% of all commissioners in the country are retired civil servants.
Performance of the Central Information Commission (CIC)
|Year||Number of Appeals/Complaints Filed||Number of Appeals/Complaints Disposed||Number of Appeals/Complaints pending|
Attacks on Activists
Though the government does not have any official data on the number of attacks on citizens who used RTI, there have been quite a few cases where people were killed. Unless the whistle blower protection act is implemented by notifying the rules, things will not change on ground. There has to be a concerted effort by both central & state governments to prevent such attacks.
For RTI to reach its true potential, there is an urgent need to address the issues mentioned above. It is on the citizens to push the government.