As the enactment of the landmark Right to Information Act completed 15 years on Monday, a factsheet has revealed that around one third of the Information Commissions currently do not have a chief and there is a humongous backlog of over 2 lakh appeals and complaints.
The Information Commissions (ICs) are set up at the central level (Central Information Commission) and state level (state information commissions). They are mandated to safeguard and facilitate people’s fundamental right to information and act as appellate bodies. The commissions have wide-ranging powers—it can compel public authorities to provide access to information, appoint Public Information Officers (PIOs), order an inquiry and penalise erring officials.
The ‘Report Card’, published by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, says the RTI experience from different national assessments suggests that the functioning of ICs is “a major bottleneck in the effective implementation of the RTI law.”
The report has found that 9 out of 29 ICs are currently functioning without a chief. These are the Central Information Commission (CIC) and the state information commissions (SICs) of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Goa, Manipur, Telangana, Jharkhand, Tripura and Nagaland.
The CIC has been without a head since August 27, 2020. Moreover, the SICs of Jharkhand and Tripura are completely defunct because new commissioners have not been appointed after previous ones demitted office.
Added to this, the large backlog of appeals and complaints has resulted in undue delays in disposal of cases, which the report says has “rendered the law ineffective.” The failure of central and state governments to take timely action to appoint information commissioners to the CIC and SICs has been cited as one of the primary reasons behind the backlogs.
According to the RTI Act, information commissions consist of a chief information commissioner and up to 10 information commissioners. The report says that successive assessments of the functioning of the ICs have shown that “the appointments to commissions are not made in a timely manner, resulting in a large number of vacancies.”
According to the findings of the report, 1,78,749 appeals and complaints were registered between April 1, 2019 and July 31 this year by 21 information commissions for whom relevant information was available. In this same period, nearly two lakh cases were disposed by 22 commissions.
The number of pending appeals and complaints as of July 31, 2020 in 20 ICs, from which data was obtained, stood at 2,21,568. “The backlog has been steadily increasing as compared to the findings last year,” the report notes.
Using the average monthly disposal rate and the pendency in commissions, the report computed that as many as nine ICs would take more than one year to dispose a matter of appeal or complaint. In the bottom is Odisha SIC, which would take 7 years and 8 months to dispose a matter. In Jharkhand SIC, it would take 4 years and 1 month, while in Maharashtra, CIC, Rajasthan and Nagaland it would take 2 years or more.
The report further said, “Performance of information commissions, in terms of exercising their powers to ensure proper implementation of the law, has been a cause of great concern to the RTI community.
Commissions have been found to be extremely reluctant to impose penalties on erring officials for violations of the law.”
The RTI Act empowers the ICs to impose penalties of upto Rs. 25,000 on erring Public Information Officers and acts as a key deterrent against violation of the law.
The 18 commissions which provided relevant information, showed penalty was imposed in a total of 1,995 cases between April 1, 2019 to July 31, 2020,
A previous assessment made on random sample of the orders of ICs had found that, on an average, 59% orders recorded one or more violations listed in Section 20 of the RTI Act, which should have led to the process of penalty imposition. “If this estimate of 59% is used, penalty would be imposable in 52,840 cases out of the 89,560 cases disposed by the 16 ICs,” the report card said, adding that “The ICs therefore did not impose penalties in more than 96% of the cases where penalties were imposable.”
Further, as many as 25 out of 29 ICs had not published their annual report for 2019. “Unfortunately, the transparency watchdogs themselves have not had a shining track record in terms of being transparent and accountable to the people of the country,” said the report.