The law Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised would sweep in transparency and improve governance – the Right to Information (RTI) Act — finds itself mired in the red tape it was meant to end.
Close to 5,000 appeals by citizens, denied information by the bureaucracy in response to their RTI applications, are waiting to be decided by the State Information Commission (SIC).
Manned by a sole commissioner, Suresh Joshi, since October 2005 when the RTI Act was born, the panel has decided only 387 appeals till date. And Joshi's current disposal rate of roughly an appeal a day means it will take over a decade for the backlog to be cleared.
Joshi is currently hearing appeals filed in March-April. In the 387 cases he has adjudicated on so far, barely 10 per cent of the decisions upheld the initial rejection of information by officials, indicating that citizens have had to undergo up to a year-long wait for information which the Act permitted immediate access to.
"The Information Commission has gone into a coma," says Bhaskar Prabhu of the Mahiti Adhikar Manch (Right to Information Forum). "Such grotesque delays defeat the very purpose of RTI. Bureaucrats are denying information knowing it will be months before the matter is decided."
Joshi's defence: "My letter to the state government to appoint more commissioners is still pending." Two months have passed since Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh announced the names of two more information commissioners. But the notification was sent to Governor SM Krishna only last Monday.
A senior secretary in the General Administrative Department said, "It will be next year by the time the new Commissioners can take charge and begin hearing cases."
The commissioners will be posted in the Aurangabad and Nagpur divisions. Their appointment means little for divisions like Pune, where over 944 RTI appeals wait to be decided.
Kamlakar Shenoy, a city restaurateur who has over 15 appeals pending with the SIC, says the delays frustrate him: "RTI is the only law that can address the corrupt state of our governance but the delays are subverting the power of the Act." CPM MLA Narasayya Adam from Solapur is planning to raise the issue in the ongoing assembly session. "My demand is that at least 6 more Commissioners be appointed."
Information activists like Shailesh Gandhi want the immediate appointment of more information commissioners, preferably from fields other than bureaucracy, and a system that disposes 250-300 each month. "Summary disposal should be adopted, otherwise RTI will be dead."
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