Sunday, August 09, 2009

Lacuna in the Right to Information Act

Since its enactment in 2005, the Right to Information Act has been lauded as a significant measure for the achievement of a more accountable and transparent government and bureaucracy. In a guest post on this blog recently, Yamini Aiyar has discussed the infrastructural weaknesses and the mindset problems which threaten the future of the RTI.

My own experience with using the RTI Act for obtaining information has revealed a curious lacuna in the law that to my knowledge has not been the subject of discussion in the news media before. Section 6(1) of the Act provides that any person who desires certain information may make a request in writing to the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) or the State Public Information Officer (SPIO) of the concerned public authority. If the public information officer (PIO) fails to provide the information within a period of thirty days, then he is deemed to have refused to provide the information. According to section 19(1) of the Act, if the person requesting the information either does not receive the PIO’s decision within the stipulated time period of 30 days or is aggrieved by the PIO’s decision, he can prefer an appeal (first appeal) to an officer who is senior in rank to the PIO in the concerned public authority. Section 19(6) stipulates that such a first appeal must be disposed off within a period of thirty (30) days of receipt of the appeal or within an extended period not greater than forty five (45) days of filing of the appeal. Section 19(3) provides that a second appeal may be preferred against the decision rendered under section 19(6) before the Central Information Commission (CIC) or the State Information Commission. However, unlike the first appeal, there is no stipulated time frame for decision by the CIC or the SIC of a second appeal under section 19(3) of the Act. Consequently, people have no option but to wait patiently for the decision of the CIC or the SIC before they can take judicial action in the matter.

I am informed by frequent users of the RTI Act that the only recourse in such a situation is to send reminders to the CIC and the SIC and hope for an early resolution of the appeal. Apparently, this approach has worked in the past but is clearly inadequate and the RTI Act needs to be amended to address this lacuna in the law.

For whatever its worth as anecdotal evidence of the functioning of the RTI Act, in my experience, an RTI request is much more likely to obtain the required information if it is of a general nature, for instance certain committee reports or information about government policies and programs. However, requests for information about specific governmental action, e.g. grant of an environmental clearance to a particular project are more often than not wholly or partially unsuccessful. In other words, requests for information are more successful when the government department has not so much at stake (e.g. the threat of future litigation) in giving the information. It would be interesting to test the veracity of this hypothesis by conducting a qualitative examination of the cases in which information was successfully obtained to determine how many involved requests for information of the latter kind.
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