India's Right to Information in a mess

Over the years the pendency of cases under Right to Information (RTI) Act has shown an upward trend with close to two lakh pending second appeal and complaint cases been reported under the Act across the country.

According to the latest report “State of Information Commissions and the Use of RTI Laws in India (Rapid Review 4.0)” by Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a New Delhi-based NGO, there were 1.93 lakh pending second appeal and complaint cases in 19 Information Commissions at the beginning of this year as compared to 1.10 lakh cases pending across 14 Information Commissions in 2015. The report based on annual reports and websites of Information Commissions was released at the Open Consultation on the Future of RTI: Challenges and Opportunities held in New Delhi in the second week of March.

Maharashtra (41,537 cases), Uttar Pradesh (40,248), Karnataka (29,291), Central Information Commission (23,989) and Kerala (14,253) were the top five Information Commissions that accounted for 77 percent of the overall pendency. Pendency in Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu among others was not publicly known while Mizoram State Information Commission (SIC) received and decided only one appeal case in 2016-17, said the report, adding that SICs of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya had no pendency at all. The Central Information Commission and nine SICs (Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh) displayed updated case pendency data on their websites.

Referring to RTI applications, the report said that around 24.33 lakh RTI applications were filed across the Central and 14 state governments between 2015-17. The report mentioned that it was not possible to get accurate figures in the absence of annual reports from several Information Commissions. By a process of extrapolation it may be conservatively estimated that up to 50 lakh RTI applications would have been submitted by citizens during the same period, the report added.

About 24.77 lakh RTI applications were reported in 2015 and it was based on data available for the years 2012-14 (where data was taken for the latest year for which an annual report was available). The figure for 2015-17 appeared to be a little less but that might be due to the absence of figures from several jurisdictions where RTI was used more prolifically, added the report. Furthermore, around 2.14 crore RTI applications were filed across the country since October, 2005, as per the data published in the annual reports of Information Commissions accessible on their websites, the report said, adding that if data was published by all Information Commissions the figure might have touched 3 to 3.5 crores. Less than 0.5 percent of the population seemed to have used RTI since its operationalization, it further added.

Despite the absence of their latest annual reports, the Central Government (57.43 lakhs) and the state governments of Maharashtra (54.95 lakhs) and Karnataka (20.73 lakhs million) continue to top the list of jurisdictions receiving the most number of information requests. Gujarat (9.86 lakhs) recorded more RTI applications than neighbouring Rajasthan (8.55 lakhs) where the demand for an RTI law emerged from the grassroots. Despite having much lower levels of literacy, Chhattisgarh (6.02 lakh) logged more RTI applications than100 percent literate Kerala (5.73 lakhs). Despite being small states, Himachal Pradesh (4.24 lakhs), Punjab (3.60 lakhs) and Haryana (3.32 lakhs) registered more RTI applications each than the geographically bigger state of Odisha (2.85 lakhs). Manipur recorded the lowest figures for RTI use at 1,425 information requests between 2005-2017. The SIC did not publish any annual report between 2005 and 2011 and is yet to release the report for 2016-17.

While the Central government, Andhra Pradesh (undivided), Assam, Goa, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala and Uttarakhand have recorded an uninterrupted trend of increase in the number of RTI applications received, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim, Nagaland and Tripura have reported a decline in the number of RTI applications received in recent yearsand the reasons for the drop in numbers, according to the report, requires urgent probing. Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Meghalaya, Gujarat, Mizoram, Odisha and West Bengal have recorded a mixed trend where the RTI application figures have fluctuated over the years. After seesawing in the initial years, Arunachal Pradesh has reported a more than 82percent decline in the number of RTI applications received in 2015 against the peak reached in 2014. Mizoram also showed a declining trend of 23 percent in 2016-17 after the peak scaled during the previous year. West Bengal’s figures rose and dipped to less than 62 percent of the peak reached in 2010 but a rising trend was reported in 2015.

Referring to headless and non-existent SICs, the report highlighted that there was no State Chief Information Commissioner (SCIC) in Gujarat since mid-January 2018. While Maharashtra SIC was headed by an acting SCIC since June 2017, there was no Information Commission in Andhra Pradesh (after Telangana was carved out in June 2014). The State government had assured the Hyderabad High Court that it would soon set up an SIC. More than 25 percent (109) of 146 posts in the Information Commissions were lying vacant. Against 142 posts created in 2015, 111 Information Commissioners (including Chief Information Commissioners) were working across the country. 47 percent of the serving Chief Information Commissioners and ICs were situated in seven states: Haryana (11), Karnataka, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (9 each), Central Information Commission, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu (7 each). Six of these Commissions were saddled with 72 percent of the pending appeals and complaints across the country.

The report further referred that 90 percent of the Information Commissions were headed by retired civil servants and more than 43 percent of the Information Commissioners were from civil services background. This is the trend despite the Supreme Court’s directive in 2013 to identify candidates in other fields of specialization mentioned in the RTI Act for appointment, argued the report. The report further mentioned that only 8.25 percent of the serving SCICs and ICs were women. Only 10 percent (8 out of 79) of the Information Commissioners serving across the country were women. Three of these women ICs were retired IAS officers while two were advocates and two had a background in social service and education. One woman IC in Punjab had a background in medicine.There were nine women ICs in 2015. The report said that the websites of SICs of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar could not be detected on any internet browser and the SICs of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh had not published any annual report so far. Jharkhand and Kerala SICs each had six pending annual reports and Punjab had five while Andhra Pradesh had four pending reports.