Why isn't the government appointing a Chief Information Commissioner so I can get the answer sheets that I have been fighting for?" asks Chandan Singh, a disabled engineering student, as he hands over a copy of his petition filed at the Prime Minister's Office. Chandan had moved the Central Information Commission (CIC) against his college, the National Institute of Technology, Trichy, to get a copy of his answer sheets. He won, but the institute insisted it couldn't locate all the papers.
"When I complained to the commission, they said I would have to wait for the government to appoint the Chief Information Commissioner," says the 22-year-old who was born without a lower arm. "How much longer will it take?"
Chandan isn't the only one asking that question ahead of the 10th anniversary, next month, of RTI's enactment.
Right to Information (RTI) activists have been protesting the vacancy for nearly 10 months - since Rajiv Mathur, a retired Intelligence Bureau director, stepped down as CIC on 22 August last year. This was the first time that the commission has been without a chief.
"It is a deliberate attempt to cripple the transparency law," says Nikhil Dey, who had campaigned with IAS officer-turned-social activist Aruna Roy for an information law in the mid-Nineties. Last week, Dey's charge was echoed in Parliament when Congress president Sonia Gandhi lashed out at the Narendra Modi government for blunting the information law.
"The unavoidable conclusion is that this government is setting out to systematically subvert the functioning of RTI Act and shield itself from public scrutiny and accountability," she charged.
In 2005, it was Gandhi who had persuaded the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to accept a liberal information regime drawn up by civil society under the aegis of the National Advisory Council that she headed. The bureaucracy resisted, but gave in sensing Mrs Gandhi's determination.
A decade later, India's RTI law, that promised to give information in just 30 days, is still ranked the world's best, next only to legislation in Serbia and Slovenia. It has also inspired other countries in South Asia to enact similar information laws.
However, the absence of a chief is bad news. It means that appeals from people turned away by government bodies under his charge - these include the PMO, the cabinet secretariat and the defence ministry, among others - just lie unattended. In the last 10 months, their number has doubled to 14,000. If the new chief - whenever he is appointed - hears 300 cases every month, it will still take the CIC nearly four years to clear the backlog. If you were to appeal against the PMO tomorrow, the case may be heard only in 2019. "We are not even talking about the quality of the decisions yet, which is a major problem," says Anjali Bhardwaj at the National Campaign for People's Right to Information. "We were used to frontal attacks on RTI so everyone took time to figure that this was an attempt to weaken the Act stealthily by slowing down the entire process," she says.
BUREAUCRACY HITS BACK
Civil servants have never been fond of the law. They attempted to get it amended twice. The first time , in 2006, was to keep file notings secret. The second was in 2009 to get the right to reject frivolous applications. A fresh attempt to dilute the RTI law was, apparently, made after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was voted to power last year.
For a change, the selection process for the next CIC began well in advance - months before the vacancy arose. According to information available through RTI, the PMO held on to the file proposing the early selection of the chief for weeks. It was returned to the department just before Mathur's term ended and the precedent that the senior-most commissioner be appointed to the post was rejected. Instead, the PMO asked for fresh applications to be called. This delayed the appointment and gave the government a free hand to select the chief.
"The uncertainty, along with attempts to nibble away at their powers has demoralised the commissioners," said activist RK Jain, who, along with activist Lokesh Batra, had moved court against the delay. Last month, the Delhi High Court agreed to monitor the appointment process holding that the delay had "virtually frustrated" the RTI Act.
With the appeals route effectively shut, Batra says rejections of requests appeared to have gone up. For instance, the PMO recently refused to spell out the expenditure on PM's trips abroad. Incidentally, a government order requires every department to voluntarily put out this information.
'THE CIC NEEDS A CHIEF'
A professor at Hyderabad's National Academy of Legal Studies and Research before his appointment as information commissioner in 2013, Madabhushanam Sridhar is the only one at the Central Information Commission from outside the civil services.
*The Central Information Commission now has 40,000 pending cases. Statistically, that means an appeal will take an average of over a year before a new appeal is heard if all ICs clear 300 cases every month.
-- Aloke Tikku
Diluting the law by not appointing information commissioners is not a novel ploy. It has been used by state after state to slow down the flow of information. A study by the RTI Assessment and Analysis Group last October estimated that an appeal before the information commission could take up to 60 years to be heard in Madhya Pradesh and 18 years in West Bengal. Satyananda Mishra, who served as the Chief Information Commissioner after retiring from the IAS, says RTI, by its very nature, creates an adversarial relation between the citizen and public authorities.
"When a person questions the government and gets information, he is essentially critiquing the government and evaluating the quality of governance," he says. "It is a good law but it is for civil society and media to work hard to protect, and keep it alive and kicking," says Mishra.
It isn't as though the earlier UPA government gave all the information sought either. But this is the first time, according to Shailesh Gandhi, a former information commissioner, that the government has tried to render the information watchdog dysfunctional by keeping the chief's post vacant. It isn't clear where this could lead. Shekhar Singh, an academic who has lectured civil servants for over two decades, says the latest attack could end up strengthening the RTI movement.
"Once the message got out that the law was under attack, everyone has joined hands. Civil society got back to work and many political parties - who may otherwise have no love lost for RTI - too are invoking the law to attack the government," he says. Looks like RTI is definitely back on the nation's radar.