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

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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

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