Amidst lockdown, The Right to Information Act (RTI Act) quietly turns sweet sixteen
Even as we cope with pressures of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, The Right to Information Act (RTI Act) is quietly turning sweet sixteen (16). Parliament gave its approval to the Right to Information Bill, on this day (12th May, 2005),15 years ago. The then United Progressive Alliance Government piloted the Bill, crafted by civil society actors, to reflect the aspirations of the people at the grassroots level for greater transparency and accountability in the administration. It would be another month (21 June, 2005) before the Bill is signed into law by the President of India. None of us had any inkling then, that a time would come when an invisible virus would prevent most people from exercising their fundamental right to know under this enabling law.
There are reports in the media that the Central Information Commission (CIC) has written to the Central Government seeking exclusion of the lockdown period from the statutory deadlines for responding to information requests and deciding first and second appeals under the Act. A copy of this communication is not yet available in the public domain. There is a short reference to this issue in the minutes of the CIC's meeting, held on 07 April, 2020. The CIC's reported move has fuelled debate within the RTI activist fraternity. Some advocates of transparency are apprehensive about setting a "bad" precedent. Others are worried that a relaxed attitude towards statutory deadlines imposed by the RTI Act might become the preferred norm even after the lockdown is lifted. Experience over the last decade and a half has shown, adherence to statutory deadlines has not been one of the redeeming features of the implementation process. It would be difficult to say anything more than this without adequate knowledge of the contents of the CIC's communication to the Government. I hope the CIC places this communication in the public domain without further delay as it concerns people's fundamental right to seek and obtain information from public authorities within specific timelines.
Meanwhile, the commencement of the 16th year of implementation is a good time to take stock of the addition that RTI makes to the workload of public authorities under the Central Government. How heavy is the burden of RTI applications on Public Information Officers (PIO)? How much do first appeals impose on the time of the designated first appellate authorities (FAAs)?
Origins of the debate about RTI workload
Even as sensitisation and skill development workshops were rolled out for public authorities and PIOs in 2005, murmurs began about the addition to their existing burden of official work. An oft-repeated complaint from PIOs was about increasing their workload without a commensurate increase in their salary. Six years later, an obiter contained in a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court of India recognising the right of students to get access to their evaluated answer scripts through RTI, added grist to this grumbling mill.
More recently, while hearing another RTI matter relating to the frequently occurring and long standing vacancies in Information Commissions, a Bench headed by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India commented on “professional RTI activists” throwing their weight at public authorities with printed letterheads. Thankfully these observations did not find their way into the Bench’s daily order.
The Scope of the Study
In order to examine what I now call, with a reasonable degree of confidence, the "urban myth" of the undue burden of RTI on an already overworked bureaucracy, a review of publicly reported statistics about RTI applications and first appeals handled by public authorities under the Government of India was done. These figures were compared with data about Central PIOs (CPIOs) and FAAs designated by public authorities. The CIC's Annual Reports are the source of the database put together for this study. I have looked at Central Government's data from 2012-13 to 2018-19 – the years for which statistics are available in a reasonably consistent manner. As for individual ministries and key public authorities, I have relied on statistics reported in the most recent year, namely, 2018-19.
Main Findings of the Study- Overview
- The total number of RTIs reported by public authorities under the Central Government has risen by more than 83% (83.83%) from 8.86 lakhs (886,681) in 2012-13 to 16.30 lakhs (1,630,048) in 2018-19 (this includes backlog from the previous year and fresh receipts during the reporting year). However, the number of CPIOs designated to handle these RTIs has gone up by a little more than 13% (13.41%) from 21,204 in 2012-13 to 24,048 in 2018-19;
- On an average, a CPIO handled less than 42 RTIs (41.82) in 2012-13. In 2018-19, this increased to almost 68 RTIs in a year (67.78). The monthly average no. of RTIs per CPIO rose from less than 4 to less than 6 RTIs between 2012-13 and 2018-19. Does handling between 4-6 RTI applications per month amount to spending 75% of a CPIO's time? That question can be answered only by examining the content of the RTI application which will reveal the volume of the period for which information is requested. A study of numbers is only the beginning;
RTI applications workload in select Ministries (2018-19)
- The topper on the CIC's list- the Ministry of Finance, reported a total of 2.22 lakh RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts). This figure includes not only RTIs handled by various departments in this Ministry but also, public sector banks, tax authorities and insurance companies, debt recovery tribunals among others- a total of 194 public authorities- all of which have a large clientele and therefore high numbers of RTIs are to be expected. With 7,100 CPIOs handling this workload, the annual average works out to a little more than 31 RTIs per CPIO (31.27) and a monthly average of just over 2 RTIs (2.61). When only fresh receipts are taken into account, the annual average per CPIO falls to less than 30 RTIs (29.73) and the monthly average hovers around 2 RTIs per CPIO (2.48). Can handling an average of 2 RTIs per month be reasonably labelled as an enormous workload on a CPIO? Clearly, the averages are so low because of the large number of designated CPIOs in this Ministry and its public authorities;
Where RTI requests seem like a burden (year 2018-19)
- There are several public authorities that have designated only one CPIO on whom falls the entire year’s burden. For example, the lone CPIO in the Prime Minister’s Office handled 13,816 RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog and fresh receipts), taking the monthly average to 1,151 RTIs. Fresh receipts amounted to an average of almost 1,012 per month;
First appeals workload
- More than 9,300 FAAs designated (9,309) across public authorities under the Central Government had a total of 1.51 lakh first appeals to deal with in 2018-19. This works out to an annual average of a little more than 16 appeals per FAA and a monthly average of less than 2 cases per FAA. Of these 1.51 lakh cases, FAAs actually decided a little over 99,000 cases during this period. So the annual average fell further to less than 11 cases and the monthly average was barely 1 case per FAA. In fact, ever since 2012-13 the monthly average number of cases received has always been less than 2 per FAA and actual disposal has been less than 1 case per month;
- More than 2,100 FAAs (2,156) designated by various public authorities under the chart topper- Ministry of Finance- had to deal with more than 25,000 first appeals in 2018-19. The annual average was under 12 first appeals and the monthly average was less than 1 appeal per FAA. These figures fell even more as the FAAs actually disposed barely 16,000 appeals (15,917) during this period taking the annual average down to less than 8 per FAA (7.38) and the monthly average fell further to under 1 case (0.68);
Where first appeals seem like a burden (2018-19)
- The burden seems enormous in the PMO, President’s Secretariat and the Supreme Court which had only one FAA each to dispose between 400-600 appeals in 2018-19. Naturally, the monthly average ranged between 34-167 cases per FAA between them; and
- Strangely, actual disposals in the PMO, President’s Secretariat and the Supreme Court ranged between 0-16 per month with the PMO reporting that its FAA disposed exactly 10% of the 2,000 first appeals received in 2018-19 (hence the monthly average of 16 cases). Interestingly, the President’s Secretariat reported that it did not dispose of any of the 611 appeal cases during the entire year. The Supreme Court reported that its FAA disposed only 3 of the 403 first appeals received in 2018-19.
If these figures are accurate, it is cause for concern because the lone FAAs do not seem to be complying with the 45-day statutory time limit for disposal of such cases. On the other hand, if these figures are inaccurately reported, the Central Information Commission does not seem to be doing enough to cross check the accuracy of the RTI statistics being logged in by CPIOs at the back end of its RTI reporting system. This statistical mystery requires resolution.
Conclusions from the study
Where the workload is distributed across multiple PIOs, RTI does not appear to be a burden, at least statistically speaking. Where all responsibilities are concentrated in a very small number of PIOs or in just one PIO, the workload appears herculean. Another reason why many public authorities and their designated officers think RTI is a burden is because of the mindset that is slow to change. Study after study has demonstrated the inadequacy of implementation of the proactive disclosure provisions of the RTI Act despite the Supreme Court of India declaring this as a mandatory obligation in the CBSE case cited above. RTI has been reduced to a request driven process by the public authorities themselves who then complain about the increasing burden of information requests and complaints.
Proactive disclosure of information about health, public distribution system, relief measures announced for migrant workers, women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged segments of society is most urgently required during the COVID lockdown and in its aftermath. Yet the means of acquiring such information are almost non-existent. Instead of proactively and routinely publishing crucial information that is actionable by citizens and civil society actors, emphasis is being placed on statistical dashboards whose figures mean little to the hungry and the unwell. On the other hand, the State wants citizens to become more and more transparent to its agencies through monitoring and surveillance mobile phone applications.
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Click here for the complete report of this study.
Click here for the data table which forms the basis of this study.