Right to information
Image Source - https://rb.gy/hsjx8u

This article has been written by Neeraj Salodkar.

Introduction

The Right to Information Act (hereinafter the “Act”) was passed in 2005 with an objective to engender transparency in the workings of the government. Under the Act, the public authorities were mandated to appoint Public Information Officers (PIOs) and also the Appellate Officers. These officers were a part of the public authority itself. However, even after no satisfactory response is received from the above authorities, there is a provision in the Act to file a second appeal with the Central Information Commission or the State Information Commissions. (Hereinafter called “CIC” and “SIC”)

What are CIC and SIC?

The CIC is the quasi-judicial body that deals with the questions of law under the Act. There is only one CIC in India, and it is located in New Delhi. 

SIC is located in almost all the states in India. These are similar to the CIC, but their jurisdiction extends only to the boundaries of that state. 

CIC can be likened to the Supreme Court, whereas the SIC can be likened to the High Courts. However, there is no appeal from SIC to the CIC. They both are final authorities. 

The authority and powers of the CIC and the Act itself. The appointment of the Information Commissioners, their salaries, their tenures, their removal, and all other incidental and ancillary powers are in the Act itself. The powers of the CIC and the SIC are similar to a civil court. The same is provided in Section 18 of the Act. The powers are as follows: 

  1. Summoning and enforcing the attendance of persons and compel them to give oral or written evidence on oath and to produce the documents or things;
  2. Requiring the discovery and inspection of documents; 
  3. Receiving evidence on affidavit; 
  4. Requisitioning any public record or copies thereof from any court or office;
  5. Requisitioning any public record or copies thereof from any court or office;
  6. Any other matter which may be prescribed. 

In simple words, the powers and functions of the CIC and the SIC are to hear the appeals from the Appellate Authority or hear complaints if a PIO has not been appointed. 

Hierarchy under the Right to Information Act

Following is the hierarchy: 

  1. Public Information Officer
  2. Appellate Authority
  3. State Information Commission/Central Information Commission

The Public Information Officer comes first. The application is filed to him. In case no satisfactory response is received, then an appeal is made to the Appellate Authority. Both of them are persons working within the organization. They are basically the employees of the authority. 

In case no proper response is received from the Appellate Authority, an appeal can be filed with the SIC or the CIC. The appellant has a choice in this matter. 

The Issue

On paper, all seems fine and dandy. It may seem that this is a foolproof system. If the PIOs and the Appellate Authorities do not reply, provide misleading information, or do not follow the law, an appeal can be filed, and swift and expeditious relief can be obtained from the CIC or the SIC. Unfortunately, it is not the case. It is far from it. The biggest problem right now is getting a date of hearing with the CIC. Recently in the month of June and July, I had filed two appeals with the CIC. Initially, they were returned, citing issues in formatting. (it must be noted that they were quick to return the appeals.) However, after removing the minor defects in the appeals, they were diarized and accepted. One month, two months, three months passed; no intimation from the Registry of the CIC about the first hearing of the case. In case there was a minor delay, the same is understandable, considering the lockdown situation in most states. However, a delay of 3 months without sending any sort of intimation is not acceptable. I called the telephone number provided on the CIC website. No one picked up. After a few days, I sent a mail to the email id mentioned on the website for seeking help. I got a reply stating, “It would be listed in due course. In case of any queries, contact the following number.” A number was provided in the email. I called up the phone number. Nobody picked up, and no call back was received. After several tries, the phone was picked up. I asked him about the status of my appeals. I was surprised when he asked me the year of the filing, not the month or date, the year. I told him that it was June and July. He blatantly and unabashedly stated that it would take at least one more year to get the case listed! He further apprised me that currently, the cases filed in the year 2019 are being tried by the CIC. After all, the cases of 2019 are decided, the ones filed in 2020 would be heard, and then the matters of 2021 would be taken up. This is what is called a travesty of justice. 

The entire purpose of the Right to Information Act, 2005 was to provide a swift and expeditious remedy to the applicant seeking information about the affairs of the government. If it would take 2 years to get the date of the first hearing, it can only be imagined how many years it would take actually to dispose of the case. Following would be the procedure: 

  1. First hearing would be conducted; (this would take around 1-2 years after filing of the second appeal)
  2. The appellant would be heard; 
  3. Notice would be issued; 
  4. Parties would be heard; (This would take 1 year at least)
  5. Case would be disposed of. 

Therefore, from the filing of the original application with the Public Information Officer and to the disposal of the second appeal, it would take around 3 to 7 years, give or take. The ideal time should not be more than a few months, at maximum. 

This is the present situation in the CIC. The CIC is akin to a tribunal. The objective of tribunals is to dispose of the matters expeditiously and swiftly and to reduce the burden of the courts. However, unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. The CIC is functioning similarly to the courts. It is taking the same time as a court takes. The entire system is built to discourage people from filing RTI applications and getting information. Faster the disposal system, more would be the appeals; more the appeals; more information about the government would be divulged, which is against the interests of the government. The government desires more and more secrecy. As it can be seen from the above story, the CIC was quick to return the appeals but extremely slow to accept them. This manifests the intentions and motives of the system. 

The constant lockdowns do not help. They make the situation worse. The government work stops entirely. The courts are the first to stop all the work and the last to commence after the lockdown is over. This takes away 6-8 months easily and gives an excuse to the government to delay. 

Another issue that adds up to the delay is the vacancies in the CIC and the SIC. On 18th August 2021, the Supreme Court had issued a direction to all the States to file a Status Report on the vacancies and pendency in the State Information Commissions. Following were some of the observations: 

  1. State of Karnataka

The State of Karnataka stated that the Supreme Court that 8 out of 11 posts in the State Information Commission are filled, and advertisements for the rest 3 vacancies had been published. 

  1. State of Maharashtra

The State of Maharashtra had 8 posts, and only 4 were filled up. As per an order of the Supreme Court in 2019, the SIC was directed to increase the vacancies to 11. However, this was not done. Adv. Prashant Bhushan, appearing on behalf of the petitioner, informed the court that the pendency in 2019 was 40,000 and was 75,000 in 2021. The Supreme Court ordered the Maharashtra government to fill up the vacancy in 3 weeks. 

  1. State of Telangana

There was no appointment in for the SIC in Telangana. The post had remained vacant for one year. The counsel for the state said it was due to Covid. The Supreme Court ordered to appoint a SIC by the next date. 

Similar observations were made for the other states as well. The case is still pending at the Supreme Court as on 18th November 2021. The name of the case is Anjali Bhardwaj and others v. Union of India. [WP (c) 436.2018]

The constant lockdowns, vacancies, too much focus on traditional procedures, and the non-compliance by the public authorities of section 4 of the Act (voluntary disclosure) have affected the working of the CIC and the SIC. 

Suggestions

Now that the problems have been identified, it becomes imperative to give solutions for the same. Following are some of the solutions:

Compliance with section 4

Section 4 mandates the public authorities to publish all the important information regarding their activities. This includes reports, decisions, government resolutions, orders, budget reports, compliance reports, official communication, as the case may be. The public authorities are lethargic and do not do so. Therefore, this gives rise to RTI applications, which, in turn, give rise to appeals and second appeals. 

Half-hearted use of technology

The CIC and SIC must embrace technology like video conferencing, sending notices via email, etc. This decreases the time to send notices and receive replies. 

Lockdowns

Lockdowns must not be imposed, and even if they are, judicial work must not be stopped. This point is closely connected with the above point. If technology is completely embraced, virtual courts will become a norm. No number of lockdowns would stop the work. 

Vacancies

The vacancies must be filled up as soon as possible. This step would immediately bring down the pendency and the needless delay. 

Conclusion

The Right to Information Act aims to provide information to the citizens and empower them to be better citizens of India. The said Act is used primarily for exposing corruption, using the data for litigation and other official purposes, research, inter alia. However, if it is going to take years to obtain the information, it would discourage everyone from making use of the Act. To properly make use of the Act, it is imperative to properly implement it. The Act must be used in the form as well as in substance. Presently, the substance of the Act seems missing.


Students of Lawsikho courses regularly produce writing assignments and work on practical exercises as a part of their coursework and develop themselves in real-life practical skills.

LawSikho has created a telegram group for exchanging legal knowledge, referrals, and various opportunities. You can click on this link and join:

https://t.me/joinchat/J_0YrBa4IBSHdpuTfQO_sA

Follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more amazing legal content.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here