The Right to Information (RTI) Act, which completed 18 years of existence earlier this month, has an uncertain future, with the spirit behind the Act weakening and the machinery to implement it breaking down steadily over the years. According to a report on the performance of the information commissions, prepared by the independent non-government organisation Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), the system is almost dysfunctional in many parts of the country. The weakening of the system has occurred in many ways. Requests under the Act for information, complaints and appeals have been rising steadily every year and are now at an all-time high. Many information commissions are not working at all as new commissioners were not appointed after the incumbents completed their term. The scope of the RTI law has shrunk, and the government has used other legislation to defeat the purpose of the RTI law. The government’s attitude to the law has become increasingly negative and restrictive at all levels.
According to the report, information commissions are completely defunct in three states and headless in five. There are seven posts vacant in the Central Information Commission where only four commissioners are working. The credentials and suitability of persons appointed for the positions of commissioners have also been questioned. There are 3.21 lakh appeals pending with the commissions. At the current pace, West Bengal will take 24 years and a month to dispose of an appeal filed on July 1 this year. With over 41,047 cases pending, Karnataka will take one year and 11 months to clear them. Governments have not cared to appoint commissioners to the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions in time. Penalties are not often imposed on officials for failure to provide information or for giving wrong information.
The aim of the RTI law was to provide information which was of public interest and of relevance to citizens who sought it. Citizens have the right to such information, and transparency is an antidote to corruption, inefficiency, lack of public spirit and arrogance that go hand in hand with power and authority. It is basic to democracy. But the right is being undermined now. The government has amended the law to downgrade the status of commissioners. The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, has made it impossible to seek personal data even if it holds public importance. Many states do not have the facility for filing of applications online, and where it is possible, it has been made difficult. The RTI law had empowered citizens like few other laws had. That power is now being eroded and taken away.
(Published 22 October 2023, 18:22 IST)