Even as the Right to Information (RTI) Act turns eight, charges of tardy, ‘half’ or ‘zero’ decisions taken by its authorities are kicking high. R K Jain, an activist and Convenor of Legal Aid, a private group that helps people with problems over RTI, points out that ironically, even petitions against delays are delayed!

According to advocates in the group, about 25,000 decisions have been held back by the Central Information Commission (CIC). This body was set up under the RTI Act in 2005, and is required to inquire into complaints from anyone who is unable to submit requests to Central or State Public Information Officers, or has been refused access to information under the Act.

The CIC must also receive and inquire into complaints from anyone who has not been given a response to a request for information or access to information within the time limit specified under the RTI Act. Yet, many decisions have been delayed by the CIC itself after receipt of such complaints. Some appeals have still not been examined!

A study of some of the applications made by Jain to the CIC reveals some interesting details pertaining to the “malfunctioning” of the RTI. (Copies of the applications are with India Together) In one of his appeals, he alleges that the concerned official “has deliberately and malafidely provided incomplete, incorrect and misleading information.” In another application, he writes that “there seems to be an arrangement to scuttle complaints and representations in CIC.” According to him, the appeals do not even seem to have been forwarded to the relevant people.

Why? It is obvious to many that structures are not correctly in place, but M L Sharma, former Commissioner of the CIC, has a strange explanation to the delayed responses: “RTI is a new law, after all.”

His statement seems surprising, considering that the RTI was drawn out in 2005. But Mr Sharma elaborates: “Our legal history is 200 years old, so the RTI Act, which is just eight, appears new to me by comparison”. He feels that in any ‘new’ law, there are bound to be delays and problems in arriving at conclusions.

However, outside the CIC’s immediate aegis, tension and resentment are high among petitioners. Appellants explain, sarcastically, that there seem to be more complaints against the RTI and CIC, than decisions taken by them.

“The CIC does not scrutinize the cases carefully. It just gives pre-prepared templates to people who want to fill out forms and submit appeals,” says an appellant. This obviously does not make the CIC more efficient or speedy. After all, people have the right to get information within a stipulated time frame, not after three years, as one does sometimes, due to delays in functioning.

J K Mittal, a senior advocate, who has filed numerous appeals against stalled orders in the CIC, says that he has even lost count of them! “Innumerable complaints,” he avers, when asked. Claiming that he takes up various cases related to the RTI, some of them even free, he explains that it is just due to his personal interest to help people. He hits the nail on the head with an accurate summing up of the situation faced by people: “Even a lawyer has to go multiple times to organizations to solve his problems, so the common man’s plight is unimaginable!”

Mr Jain agrees. “No one in the authority takes our complaints seriously,” he fumes. “The officer himself is not serious about it. Half-hearted efforts are being made to get the complaints to the right places.” The prime impression it leaves is that it is a heavily constituted bureaucracy.

What’s wrong with the CIC?

What are the main reasons behind these charges? Mostly, it is that many malpractices are followed by not only government officers in the RTI, but even in the CIC. If the organisation does not even go through, deal with, or punish the concerned officials, then the public is bound to be frustrated further.

Unwilling to agree that the CIC was working well only in the early years, Mr Sharma points out: “It has been doing well all these years. After all, a new broom does sweep well.”

Countering his argument, Mr Mittal rues that the CIC has become weaker with time. “The hearing is not meticulous or diligent, after all. Many cases are not proceeding in the same speedy manner as they did when the CIC was started. In fact, out of the 13,500 cases decided in 2012, there were 2,400 that did not even get a hearing, but were decided haphazardly. That is because the CIC favours the officer, not the citizen, while listening to cases,” says the advocate.

At times, the applications for RTI, filed by petitioners, do not reach the required heads of the Information Commission, according to appellants. Many representations have not even been put up to the addressee for appropriate action. As per Section 7 of the RTI Act, 2005, though, information should be provided within 30 days of the application. Recently, five complaints have been filed and applicants granted a paltry sum of Rs 5,000 in all, according to Mr Mittal.

Questions are also raised about the inability of the CIC to punish an officer who has not followed the rules. Doesn’t excusing officials make them complacent? If the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) delays giving out information without valid reason, then the CIC is justified in imposing some penalty; yet, none is imposed for most of the appeals.

“A government officer in any other body may be penalized in cases. But in the CIC, there is no provision for penalization. Now who do we approach to complain against the CIC? Should there be another legal body over the CIC to monitor its functioning?” asks another appellant.

According to Jain, even appointments are not made carefully. While the staff strength is 166, only two staffers are regular, 11 are under deputation, 16 are contracted, while 12 have been outsourced.  Some staffers even feel that they have been exploited, and are expected to work in compliance with the officers’ wishes and directions rather than follow due procedure.

On his part, Sharma has some defence for the CIC, apart from its ‘newness’. He says that delays are mainly due to wordy complaints filed by appellants.

“Except in Bangalore, and later Maharashtra, which restricts the length of the complaints to just 150 words, most appeals are long, wordy, irrelevant, and in various languages. Though they can be registered under Section 8, it is difficult for the CIC to take decisions quickly. The details of the CPIO, including dates and places, are important. If these details are not followed, then the CIC is not able to solve the problems, but merely passes it on again to the CPIO and directs that information be given,” he points out.

Secondly, the appeals require a nominal fees of Rs 10. How is that adequate to handle all the logistics? Moreover, it encourages endless appeals. “There is a docket explosion of appeals,” he exclaims, “they should entail payment of some minimal fees, so that no frivolous appeals are made.”

Sharma, however, does agree that punishment should be given to the officers concerned if they are found guilty of lapses in procedure or violation of provisions. He recalls at least 100 to 150 cases so far in which penalty was imposed on the officers concerned, but he also feels that the approach should not be to punish them heavily, but only to make them aware of lapses on their part. “This is so that they may be encouraged and incentivized to improve their behaviour,” he says.

Perhaps these explanations are correct, says Mr Jain. However, he demands that officials should ask and do their work properly, without expecting the appellant to approach the court with ‘correct’ appeals in all cases.

After all, looking back at the past eight years, there do seem to be an overwhelming number of complaints against the RTI. A ‘patient’, after all, cannot specify what is wrong with himself. The need is for a doctor who will be able to diagnose the problem and treat it properly.