How effective is India’s Right to Information Act (RTI)? Last week the Hindustan Times quoted a prominent Central Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, warning the country that the government and the judiciary together pose a serious threat to the RTI. Gandhi argued that the government’s infrastructure - training, resources - for the implementation of the RTI is woefully inadequate. He also highlighted the role of the courts in weakening the Act. The judiciary has been granting stays on orders of the information commission – which he noted is a very dangerous trend.
Gandhi’s concerns resonate with some of the findings of a recently completed country-wide assessment of the RTI conducted by the Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group’s (RAAG). The study surveyed 27 information commissions to find that nearly 60 per cent of the commissions reported inadequate infrastructure as their biggest problem. Inadequate staff and low budgets were the most commonly cited problems. Perhaps because of inadequate infrastructure, there is a wide variance in the speed and efficiency with which Information Commissions dispose of cases and some states (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh) have an estimated waiting period of over one and a half years!
The problem of poor infrastructure is not restricted to the ICs. Nine hundred Public Information officers (PIOs) across rural and urban India were interviewed as part of this study. Sixty per cent of them reported never having received any basic training in the RTI. As a result there is a lot of confusion about the Act particularly about the kinds of information that ought to be made public. Another serious lacuna in the government’s infrastructure for the RTI is that of poor record maintenance. Across the system, no effort has been made to collect, analyze and store information in a manner that is accessible and relevant to the public – a fact that was made evident through interviews with heads of departments in all states. Poor record keeping results in delays in the provision of information and is often used as an excuse not to furnish information sought. Moreover, government departments are not making any effort to disseminate information pro-actively. The study surveyed the extent to which government departments are complying with section 4 (proactive disclosure) to find that 70 per cent of government departments report on less than 50 per cent of the items specified under section 4 of the Act. Worse still of the information reported, most of it tends to be out of date and unusable.
There is some good news! Despite this poor infrastructure, people are getting information. The study team filed and tracked 500 RTI applications. Information was received in 55 per cent of cases, and in 40 per cent cases information was received on time. This experience is similar to that reported by applicants surveyed (over 2000 applicants were surveyed in the study) where 58 per cent respondents reported receiving information and 50 per cent said they received information on time.
This good news may be short-lived if steps are not taken urgently to address infrastructure weaknesses. But perhaps the greatest threat the RTI faces comes from the prevalent mind-set – one that runs deep through all our public institutions - that is fundamentally resistant to the idea of open government. The judiciary’s opposition to the RTI application seeking information on judge’s assets and the recent trend that Shaliesh Gandhi alludes to of courts issuing stays on IC orders point to how this mind-set manifests itself.
The obvious irony of the Courts, the key institutional mechanism for enforcing accountability of the executive and legislatures, refusing to hold itself up to legally set standards of accountability and transparency, has not escaped most commentators. Curiously, it points to the urgent need to take steps towards initiating this mind-set change. This is crucial for the future of the RTI. Civil society needs to rise to this challenge.
[Yamini Aiyar is Director, Accountability Initiative, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi]