The buck stops nowhere

Activists discuss how to make the transparency law more effective and thus become result-oriented

yogesh

Yogesh Rajput | November 3, 2015 | New Delhi


#10 years of rti   #right to information act   #rti  

In 2010, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) formed a committee called the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). Its objectives were clear: the panel was to assess the ecological status of the Western Ghats, demarcate areas which needed to be notified as ecologically sensitive, and make other recommendations if any, in the wake of climate change. Meanwhile, the centre was also in the process of perusing the ecological impact of the Athirappilly hydro-electric project in Kerala, which was to fall in the Western Ghats region. Various environmental groups had opposed the project citing ecological damage to the Ghats.

In the midst of all this drama, a resident of Kerala, G Krishnan, sent an application under the RTI Act, on September 22, 2011, to the MoEF. He sought the summary of the WGEEP report and also the centre’s take on the Athirappilly hydro-electric project. His request was denied. In its response, the ministry said that it was still in the process of examining the report, in consultation with the six states of the Western Ghats region. As such the report was not final, still a draft under consideration of the ministry, and thus not complete or ready for disclosure under RTI. Krishnan was advised to send in his queries later, after completion of the process.

Dissatisfied, Krishnan filed an appeal which was again rejected. When a subsequent appeal reached the central information commission (CIC), the ministry argued that any hasty decision on making the report public without adequate consultative process would lead to misuse of its findings. It further argued that the information sought was protected from disclosure due to possible threat to the scientific and economic security of the nation.

The CIC thought otherwise. It said, “It is not denied that the government while formulating policy decisions is guided by its wisdom and priorities for the nation. However, in a democracy, the masters of the government are the citizens and an argument that public servants will decide policy matters by not involving them, without disclosing the complete reasons to the masters, is specious.” But apart from guaranteeing Krishnan his rights under the RTI Act, the CIC through this judgment also looked into the lackadaisical attitude of public authorities in proactively disclosing information to the public. Citing relevant sections from the Act, the CIC said, “The law requires suo moto disclosure by the public authority ‘while’ formulating important policies and not ‘after’ formulating them. Obviously, the thinking was that our democracy is improved and deepened by public participation in the process of decision-making, and not when a policy is finalised and then merely announced in the name of the people.”

The CIC directed MoEF to ensure that the WGEEP report be placed on its website. In addition, the commission also directed the ministry to publish all reports of commissions, special committees or panels within 30 days of receiving the same, unless it was felt that any part of a report was exempted under relevant provisions of the RTI Act.

Such directions, however, have hardly inspired other authorities to also proactively disclose information for public use. This practice of turning a blind eye is prevalent even when there is a dedicated section in the RTI Act calling for mandatory disclosure of specific information by public authorities on their official websites. According to Section 4 of the Act, every public authority needs to maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed and wherever possible, in a computerised manner and within a reasonable time. In particular, the subsection – Section 4(1)(b) – directs public authorities to publish on their websites a host of information, that include particulars of the organisation, functions and duties; powers and duties of its officers and employees; budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made; manner of execution of subsidy programmes, including the amounts allocated and the details of beneficiaries of such programmes, among others.

The dismal performance of public authorities in this area is evident from CIC’s annual report for 2013-14. In this report, the commission was surprised to see that despite having good information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure, only 667 of a total 2,276 public authorities adhered to Section 4(1)(b) of the Act.

Rakesh Dubbudu, founder of Factly, a public information portal, carried out an extensive analysis of the PMO and CMO websites for RTI related disclosures. He found proactive disclosure of information absent on the PMO website while in the analyses of websites of 29 states, only 20 of them were found to have a dedicated website for the CMO. Of the 20 websites, 12 did not have any information on RTI.

Moreover, only five states – Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka – were found to be having proactive disclosures on their respective websites. However, this good news did not last long. Even in these five states, most of the details under Section 4 were found to be outdated. As per the analyses, Uttar Pradesh, by far, had the most up-to-date CMO website with all requisite details under RTI.

Dubbudu feels that a penal provision is required to ensure proper implementation of Section 4. “Governance, by and large, is not working properly. Somewhere the centre and the states have to incorporate a penal provision and the concerned officers need to be held accountable. If one would analyse, it can be found how much pendency of RTI applications would automatically decrease if information is provided in the first place,” says Dubbudu.    

Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of the Right to Information programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), presents a different approach in dealing with this issue. “The problem is that it (Section 4) is no one’s baby. The Act mentions the measures that need to be taken for proactive disclosure of information but does not mention as to who would hold responsibility for the implementation part.” He says numerous guidelines have been sent out by the department of personnel and training (DoPT) and various committees have been set up to address this issue, but no concrete action has been witnessed yet. “I feel that the head of a concerned department should be responsible for giving out information. This function should be part of the annual assessment report of the concerned department and accordingly the promotion or increment of the officer in-charge should be based.”

On the 10th annual convention of the CIC, PM Narendra Modi spoke of three ‘T’s – timeliness, transparency and trouble-free access to information – to be kept in mind by public departments while replying to RTI applications. However, a lot can be done by government authorities before any application reaches their desk.

yogesh@governancenow.com

(The article appears in the November 1-15, 2015 issue)

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