SC order could impede RTI's spirit

At a public hearing before the seventh anniversary of the transparency law being passed, serving and former information commissioners as well as activists come express concerns about the order

jasleen

Jasleen Kaur | October 12, 2012



On the eve of right to information's (RTI) seventh anniversary, the national campaign for peoples' right to information (NCPRI), organised a public hearing on the transparency law in New Delhi on Friday. At the hearing, the recent SC order on appointment of judges to the posts of central and state information commissioners and the pendency of appeals at the commissions took centrestage.

There were detailed discussions on non-imposition of penalties by the commissions and other complaints at various commissions, non-compliance with the orders of the commissions by the public information officers and attacks on RTI activists/users also. The hearing had many RTI activists, users, and serving and former information commissioners in attendance.

The discussions shed light on many structural and behavioural reasons affecting the full implementation of the transparency law. Pradip Pradhan, the convener of the Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijan, said that the state had spent over Rs 3 crores conducting workshops and seminars to create awareness among the people. But the chronic pendency of cases at the state information commission (SIC) was because of the lackadaisical attitude of the commissioners themselves. "There is a pendency of 15,000 appeals. And now, the three commissioners start hearing only by 11 am and are done by 1 pm. They do not work on weekends. Of the 10-12 cases they hear a day, they dispose of some 5-6. So, in a month the SIC disposes an average of 80 cases. If one compares the figure with those of some others states or even the central information commission (CIC), it is very less," Pradhan stated.

However, he added, protests against the pendency further encouraged inefficient functioning of the commission. "In order to bring down the workload, the commission disposed off 6,000 cases without a hearing of any of them," he claimed.

The problem of pendency of appeals was a common one for most information commissions at the state level while the CIC seems to have had a better record. RTI activist Subhash Agrawal commended the CIC's functioning saying, "My experience with the CIC has been very good. It is working well. Commissioners come prepared and take good decisions.”

The delays are sometimes frustrating, Aslam, a RTI activist from Gujarat, said. "There are instances where it took four years for some appeals to come up for hearing. Now, there are more than 18,000 cases pending with the commission," he said. The problem is just as bad in neighbouring Rajasthan. Ryaz Khan, an activist from the state, said that there were more than 9,500 cases waiting to be heard. "It takes 3-4 months to register a complaint and a further 8-12 months for the case to come up at the commission. So, between filing an appeal and the first session of the hearing, a full year would have elapsed. Last year, the commission did not function for five months as a head had not been appointed. Appeals congealed and the pendency built up. And now, after the supreme court order, no appeal is being heard at the commission," Khan added. 

D Raja, a Rajya Sbaha member of the Communist Party of India, said that RTI is a powerful tool and it must be protected. "We sit in parliament and people think we are very powerful. But even we use the Act to know what the government is doing. This is a powerful tool and we must strengthen it and its institutions. But SC's order will make it weak. Appointing one or two judges is not a problem but making it mandatory is not right. If this is implemented, the commissions will not prove to be efficient."

Serving and former information commissioners also expressed strong reservations against mandatory appointment of judges at the commissions. They feared that the pendency would further increase. Shailesh Gandhi, former commissioner at CIC, said that people must understand how dangerous the SC's order can be for the spirit of RTI. He said there is a need to improve the efficiency of the commissions but the order will undermine all attempts.

“If the court feels that commissioners are not efficient, then only lawyers and judges should be appointed as commissioners. We have found that only in 15 percent cases law expertise is required,” Gandhi added. "The complaints and appeals are increasing every year while a two-person bench could see the output drop by 25 percent. Soon, the commissions will be undistinguishable from our courts where cases and trials go on for years before a verdict is given," he said. 

"The courts of India have stopped giving justice to the people and implementing the SC order will kill the RTI," he said.

Former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah said commissions should improve their work and should also fix deadlines for disposing cases. He added that it is the duty of the government and the commission to implement section 4 of the RTI Act. “The government departments should put all the information out in the open — on their website, through publication and notice boards. If the information will be in the public domain, obviously, the work of commissioners will be reduced. When I left CIC around 1,300 cases were pending and now it is 30,000. Number of complaints and appeals are increasing every year.”

“Simply passing a resolution to fix a deadline for disposing a case won’t help. We need to improve at the root,” Habibullah suggested. 

Deepak Sandhu, information commissioner at CIC, said whatever changes are being introduced must ensure that the simplicity of the Act is not lost. “We have to ensure that it does not become another court where people have to bring a lawyer to file a petition,” she added.

Activists Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Venkatesh Nayak were among those who attended the hearing.
 

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