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Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi mentioned RTI 33 times in his TimesNow interview two months back. He claimed that the UPA government's biggest contribution in its fight against corruption was the Right to Information (RTI) Act. However, HT has found that the transparency Act is slowly becoming ineffective due to pending appeals, non-action on erring information officers and attacks on RTI activists.
More than 1.5 lakh appeals are pending before the central information commission (24,000 appeals pending) and state information commissions (SIC), HT has found. The Congress-ruled states of Maharashtra and Karnataka are among the worst performers, with 35,000 and 24,000 pending appeals respectively. Some of these appeals are pending since 2011.
Besides, lack of disciplinary action against erring public information officers (PIOs) has led to more applications getting rejected. Across states, PIOs are penalised in less than 5 per cent of the cases, HT has found. As per the Act, the CIC or SICs can impose a penalty if the PIO has not furnished the information sought within 30 days, or knowingly given incorrect, incomplete or misleading information.
But since such penalties are scarcely imposed, genuine applicants get replies such as "the query is not specific", "the documents are voluminous", "information not available" or "the information is in public domain". HT filed more than 100 RTIs in the past six months and found that a majority of the applications did not elicit a proper reply.
Worse, some applicants don't even get a response.
Former Central Information Commissioner Sailesh Gandhi explains that in the eight years since the Act came into being, penalties have been imposed on PIOs in only 1,000 cases of the more than 1.7 lakh appeals that were disposed. "This is pathetic. If PIOs don't have the threat of penalty, then RTI is under threat," he added. Despite Gandhi mentioning in his RTI applications that he is a former CIC, PIOs in various Maharashtra state departments did not even bother to reply.
"Most first-timers get discouraged if the PIO rejects their application on frivolous grounds. Very few go in appeal but even then the cases remain pending or the order is given after years," says Rama Nath Jha, lawyer and director of Transparency International.
As if rejections were not enough, threats to the lives of RTI activists are scaring information seekers. As per the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) data, to date around 250 individuals have been allegedly attacked, harassed, their property and belongings damaged and some even murdered for seeking information under the Act.
Chief Information Commissioner Sushma Singh could not be reached for comments despite repeated attempts. However, TY Das, secretary, CIC, said: "The 24,000 appeals are pending because we have a limited number of commissioners. They dispose of appeals as and when these reach them…. I would not like to comment further."