Transparency and accountability are the two cornerstones of any democracy. With the intent to empower the general public and make our institutions more answerable to the people, the Right to Information Act was passed on 15th June, 2005. It enables any Indian Citizen to file an RTI request with public authorities to sought information. In case an RTI application is not replied to— within the stipulated time of 30 days— the applicant can file a first appeal with the concerned appellate authority. Furthermore, the act has provisions for an applicant to take up further inquiry if the response of the public authority is not satisfactory.
In spite of a system of check and balance in place, the act has not been able to deliver in its full capacity due to the callous attitude of officials. The Information Commission is overworked and understaffed which has resulted in information being delayed and sometimes denied. There have been instances where the Public Information Officers or PIOs have responded saying that the amount of time and effort required to answer RTI requests would hamper the daily functioning and take up unnecessary time of the officials. In addition to that there are several loopholes within the policy that further weaken it. For example, whether political parties and public-private tie ups lie in the ambit of reservation or not is still ambiguous due to the discrepancies in response from the authorities.
Many RTI activists have been attacked and even killed, thus using an alternative mechanism of deterrence. Over the years, there have been numerous cases where the applicants were told that the government did not have the requested information in order to avoid releasing any data. A notable case being that of Commodore Lokesh Batra, who was denied information about Mr. Narendra Modi’s foreign tours by the Prime Minister’s Office. The information requested by him was twofold— which Indian Air Force (IAF) aircrafts were used by him and what was the expenditure incurred over these visits for the period from 26 May 2014. The PMO took over 7 months to respond which is a clear violation of the permitted time period. But what’s even more disheartening is that they expected a rationale citizen of the country to believe the fact that the government did not have such crucial information. On further appeals, then CIC Divya Prakash Sinha directed the PIOs to supply this information to Commodore Batra but here is how the PIO and appellate authority were condoned:
“…the Commission does not find any malafide intention on the part of the Respondents in having delayed the provision of a reply”
“…the Commission does not find any reason to initiate action against either of the Respondents.”
“… the fact that appropriate information has not been provided by the Respondents is attributed to the gross lack of knowledge or perhaps limited knowledge of the process of debit on account of various expenditure components of foreign visits of the Hon’ble PM.”
In addition to this, the CIC went on to question what harm had been done to Mr. Batra in the absence of this information despite the fact that the RTI Act clearly states that an applicant can’t be questioned as to why they’ve filed a request. This response is not only problematic in itself but also paints a scary picture of how seriously our authorities take the citizen’s Right to Information.
Since the public is a direct stakeholder in all policy matters and other decisions taken by the government, the people need to be assured that the ruler and the ruled have a clear relationship . Therefore, free flow of information becomes imperative for any democracy to survive. But as of now the current regime has not set the best precedence for maintaining this requisite transparency that a democracy needs. So this law, although meant to empower the people, is nothing but a facade: exploited and underutilized. And we, as responsible citizens, must protect our right to know and remind our institutions that keeping us in the dark is not an option.
Picture Courtesy- Vakilsearch