New Delhi: An assessment by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) has revealed that several Information Commissions (ICs) are non-functional or functioning at reduced capacity due to crucial posts being vacant, and giving rise to a mammoth backlog of appeals and complaints.
The "Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2022-23", shows that the posts of commissioners, including that of the chief information commissioner, were vacant during 2022-23 so far.
The report said, "This is extremely concerning given that without access to relevant This is extremely concerning given that without access to relevant information citizens, especially the most marginalised, are often denied their rights and entitlements as abuse of power and corruption thrive."
a) Reduced Capacity:
According to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, information commissions are composed of a chief information commissioner and can have up to 10 information commissioners.
The SNS report identifies four information commissions that are currently non-operational. This renders the RTI) Act ineffective for citizens who cannot access information.
Jharkhand's commission has been non-functional for over three years, Tripura's for 27 months, Telangana's for seven months, and Mizoram's became defunct in June 2023.
It also shows that six commissions are currently functioning without a Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), a role critical for the proper management and direction of commission affairs.
Meanwhile, the Central Information Commission has been headless for the sixth time in ten years. Manipur's commission has operated without a Chief for 56 months, Chhattisgarh since December 2022, Maharashtra since April 2023, Bihar since May 2023, and Punjab since September 2023.
Several commissions are functioning with a reduced number of information commissioners, leading to a backlog of appeals and complaints. For instance, Maharashtra's commission has only four commissioners, while Karnataka is operating with five commissioners, Chhattisgarh with two, and West Bengal with merely three.
b) Rising Backlog:
As of June 30, 2023, there were 3,21,537 pending appeals and complaints across 27 information commissions, marking a steady increase in backlog.
In 2019, the assessment reported 2,18,347 pending cases, which grew to 2,86,325 by June 30, 2021, and then exceeded 3 lakh by June 30, 2022.
The Maharashtra State Information Commission had the most alarming backlog with 1,15,524 appeals/complaints as of December 31, 2022, followed by Karnataka with over 41,000, Uttar Pradesh with 27,163, and the Central Information Commission with 20,078.
The West Bengal SIC, with its current disposal rate, would take an astonishing 24 years and 1 month to clear cases filed on July 1, 2023. Several other commissions, including Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Arunachal Pradesh, and Odisha, would require 2 to 4 years for disposal.
Additionally, the assessment revealed that 10 commissions would take over a year to address pending cases, while the Central Information Commission's estimated disposal time stood at 9 months.
The report states that during the reviewed period, 2,20,382 appeals and complaints were registered by 28 information commissions, with 2,14,698 cases disposed of by 29 commissions. Uttar Pradesh's SIC had the highest number of disposed cases, and Maharashtra registered the most appeals and complaints.
Impact on RTI
These findings emphasize the urgent need for addressing the dysfunctionality of information commissions, ensuring proper appointments, and addressing the rising backlog of appeals and complaints. Failure to do so undermines the effectiveness of the RTI Act and the public's right to access information.
In February 2019, the Supreme Court addressed the non-appointment of information commissioners in a PIL case and underlined that it was vital for ICs to function effectively with adequate commissioners to ensure a proper implementation of the RTI Act. The Court said not having enough commissioners would defeat the purpose of the RTI law.
The apex court gave directions to ensure timely appointment of information commissioners and held that: “We would also like to impress upon the respondents to fill up vacancies, in future, without any delay. For this purpose, it would be apposite that the process for filling up of a particular vacancy is initiated 1 to 2 months before the date on which the vacancy is likely to occur so that there is not much time lag between the occurrence of vacancy and filling up of the said vacancy.”