DILUTING THE RTI ACT?
With the Central Information Commission striving to bring political parties under the RTI Act, the government has started to suffocate and clamp down on the institution by stalling information and by not filling the vacancies
IN the mid-sixties, there was a popular play titled ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’?’ a parody of the song ‘Who’s Afraid of Big Bad Wolf?’ from Walt Disney’s The Three Little Pigs. The story revolves around two couples trying desperately to suppress certain truth which to their consternation manages to come out leading to thunder and fury. In her writing, Virginia Woolf attempts to expose the truth: all of the things that the couples try to cover up. When the couples sing the song together, they make mockery of their own fear of the truth and are attempting to project, a false image. Do we see a parallel with the Right to Information Act (RTI), political parties and the government? Indeed, we should. As of now there are a whopping 24,302 cases related to information appeals under the RTI Act pending with the Central Information Commission (CIC). This backlog is in spite of the fact that the Commission is dodging the Act by returning a majority of appeals coming to it, citing lack of documentation, premature appeals or forwarding of cases to the relevant State Information Commissions. This is a new develop- ment in line with the central government’s policy of clamp down and centralising decision making. And it has percolated down to the field level. Let us see one example from Kanyakumari, the southernmost district of India. A retired principal scientist sent an RTI application in May 2017 to the Project Director, National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), seeking information on the alignment of the proposed new National Highway 47 and the panchayats, villages, tanks/water bodies affected thereof. The reply received was atrocious:
“….it is supposed that the information being asked purposefully to freeze/ drag the NH-47 four-laning project which is an economic important project of Government of India by creating various legal/technical issues. Also, disclosure of above information is dangerous and insecure…. Hence the information sought by you which would prejudicially affect economic interest of Government could not be disclosed under section 8 (1) (a) and 8 (1) (g) of Right to Information Act, 2005.” No wonder, since this ‘duplicate’ NH 47 costing over Rs 2,000 crore is turning out to be a huge BJP government scam! This is the kind of replies that most RTI applicants are getting these days from the Public Information Officers (PIOs). First appeal within the department do not make much differ-differ ence anf the second and final appeal lies with CIC which is increasingly becoming functus officio. In 2017 alone, of the 18,518 cases registered as appeals, the CIC returned 13,796 cases to appellants citing one reason or the other. Lack of sufficient staff strength is touted as among the reasons why their backlog is increasing. In September 2016, the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) had advertised for the post of two Information Commissioners (ICs) due to fall vacant. While the applications were invited well before the vacancies arose, no appointments have been made till date. Decisions for the appointment of ICs had to be made by the PMO and DoPT cannot act on its own. As per sources, 225 persons had applied for these posts and yet the government has failed to select and fill them. Two more ICs at the CIC are due for retirement soon. This trend could continue as more ICs superannuate and would not be replaced. Some amendment is also being proposed to choke things further. Is CIC heading towards asphyxia and slow death?
IT all started four years ago with the CIC’s categorical order that political parties would come under the purview of the RTI Act, since they are the ‘building blocks of a constitutional democracy’. CIC’s ruling was well reasoned on general, legal and financial grounds. Under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, a political party can have a Member of the House disqualified in certain circumstances; that a political party is required to be registered by the Election Commission of India (ECI) under the Representation of People Act, 1951; that under the Act, political parties are required to submit a report for each Financial Year to the ECI in respect of contributions received by it in excess of 20,000; that ECI allots symbols to various political parties; that political parties are mandated to file regular Income Tax Returns. On the financial side, governments give several concessions to political parties like large tracts of land or accommodation in Delhi; total tax exemption for all their income; free
As of now there are a whopping 24,302 cases related to information appeals under the RTI Act pending with the Central Information Commission (CIC). This backlog is in spite of the fact that the Commission is dodging the Act by returning a majority of appeals coming to it, citing lack of documentation, premature appeals or forwarding of cases to the relevant State Information Commissions