Free flow of information is still a distant dream despite efforts by the government. On Thursday, the federal Right to Information Act — billed a watershed in administrative transparency and citizens’ empowerment — will be a year old. But a pre-birthday jog down the performance lane rates it as “more of a disappointment than a weapon of mass empowerment” as envisaged by the National Advisory Council that drafted the law.
Even members of the Central Information Commission including chief information commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah and information commissioner O.P. Kejriwal admit that it has been “partially successful”. “We may not have been able to tap the potential of the Act,” Kejriwal said. A nationwide survey by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), released on Tuesday, explains the reasons why the Act has failed to deliver. Most of the 19 states in which the survey was conducted have only two information commissioners housed in temporary offices with very little fund and manpower. States like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra have only one information commissioner.
The RTI Act allows appointment of 10 commissioners. The survey says appointment of retired government officials as information commissioners has been the reason behind the failure of the law. In Assam, a retired IPS officer heads the commission whereas a retired judge is at the helm in Uttar Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh is the only exception where the three commissioners are from different professions. RTI activists feel commissioners should be from different backgrounds to make the law more effective.
Another deterrent is the high processing fee charged by some states in violation of the Act, which stipulates Rs 10 for an application. States like Haryana and Tamil Nadu charge Rs 50, whereas Maharashtra and Orissa charge Rs 25 for an appeal. Andhra Pradesh scores as it charges no fee at the village level. The mandals and the district-level organizations charge a slightly higher amount.
Another reason why the Act has been ineffective is the information commissioners’ reluctance to use the penalty clause against officials providing wrong or no information.
The survey points out that no states, barring Goa and Karnataka, have invoked the clause. In Delhi, the CIC invoked the clause in two cases and later withdrew the penalty in one case. Kejriwal, however, defends the commissioners saying indiscriminate use of the clause might have led to the collapse of the administrative machinery. Shekhar Singh of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information feels that a more stringent use of the clause will send the message to the bureaucracy that tinkering with the Act will not be tolerated. “Now, the feeling in bureaucracy is that the Information Commissioners will protect them rather than punish them,” he said. Like Kejriwal, most RTI activists, are optimistic despite the initial hiccups.“The Act has indicated that it is a powerful weapon to change the work culture”.