When the Right To Information becomes a fight for information in India

July 9, 2014

The Congress party-led government that drafted the Right To Information (RTI) Act in 2005 touted the law as one of its success stories for the average Indian in the last election. Whether it played any role in the election’s outcome is difficult to say, but activists who specialize in RTI requests throughout India say that government workers have found many ways to frustrate their attempts to get responses to their questions.

Filing an RTI is easier than it used to be, but extracting information is getting harder each year, said Neeraj Goenka, an RTI activist in Sitamarhi, a town in the state of Bihar.

“Bihar government brought a number of amendments to the RTI act to discourage people from asking questions. Bureaucracy is totally dominant here also like in any other state,” he said. “From top to bottom, everyone knows how the information can either be denied or delayed, and the application keeps moving from one authority to the other for months.”

An RTI works like this: a citizen files a request for information to a state office, and the office is required by federal law to respond in 30 days. The trouble is, a lax attitude toward enforcing the turnaround time coupled with an overburdened bureaucracy can lead to slower or absent responses.

A report this week said 66,000 RTI complaints and appeals are pending.

Goenka said that he filed a request in 2012 to find out what kind of penalties bureaucrats received for various mistakes on the job, and has received no information. “I filed a first appeal also, but in vain. If this is the situation with the information commission itself, which is supposed to be the guardian of RTI, you can easily imagine the rest of the scenario,” he said.

D P Choudhary, secretary of Bihar’s information commission, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

T Bala Gangadhar Rao, an RTI activist who lives in Andhra Pradesh, said bureaucrats respond to RTIs slowly because they know that they probably will not be punished for not moving more quickly. Pradeep Rapria, a lawyer in Haryana who had served as a legal adviser in the Central Information Commission, said that it is hard to expect quick responses from bureaucrats who concealed information throughout their career and now “have been entrusted to provide information.”

Prateek Pandey, a freelance consultant in the state of Chhattisgarh who trains government employees on RTI, said bureaucracy has a habit of overcoming attempts to seek straight answers to people’s questions.

“If you want information from the Chhattisgarh legislative assembly, the application fee is as high as 500 rupees ($8),” Pandey said. The usual fee is 10 rupees (less than 20 cents).

Southern Chhattisgarh is one of the centres of India’s armed Maoist rebellion. In that part of the state, government officials often refuse to honour RTI requests because of an exemption in the name of national security, said Pandey.

“During training, an officer told me that someone had sought travel details of his department through RTI, but the information was not shared as this would have put them in risk because the information can reach to the Naxals. This cannot be a reason for denial, for the detail sought was about the travelling you had already done,” he said.

 Chhattisgarh Information Commissioner Serjius Minj said he did not know who denied that information, but acknowledged that the government can withhold information for certain reasons. On the fee, he said that the state assembly “is free to decide the fee for the information sought. If anybody finds it a violation of constitutional provisions, he can always challenge it in courts.”

In West Bengal, the state information commission said it received 11,464 applications between 2005 and 2013. Only 3,413 cases – or 30 percent of the total — were closed, according to Amitava Choudhary of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), and a resident of Howrah.

A senior officer of the West Bengal Information Commission, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to reporters, said resources are limited. “Assume that the strength of the office is to dispose of 10 applications a day, but if it receives 100 applications, then what can be done?”

Barely 10 percent of the applicants who file in Gujarat get replies in 30 days, said Vinod Pandya who lives in Surat and says he filed an RTI for information on charges that in 2009, the Gujarat government, then led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, illegally put a woman under surveillance. The controversy cropped up earlier this year when the UPA government decided to set up a judicial commission to investigate the matter.

“People are sick and tired,” he said. Pandya said it took more than two years for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in Gujarat to provide a reply on illegally built buildings in the city.

Ashutosh Tripathi, who lives in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, says the law has exposed corruption in villages and panchayats in the state, but still “the rate of disseminating information is very slow.”

“I know how RTI helped in exposing wrongdoings in the construction of a village road in the district. There are a number of examples like this but it is still tough to get hold of the big fish,” Tripathi said.

Despite shortcomings and loopholes, the act is one of India’s best, and has brought change to the country, said Nikhil Dey, who campaigned for the law along with activists such as Aam Aadmi Party founder Arvind Kejriwal, Aruna Roy and others.

“This law has worked better than almost any other law. The person who never talked to you, who never let you get into his office, is forced to give you the information. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they know they have to answer your queries,” Dey said. “I can tell you thousands of stories of problems about RTI, but nevertheless, what was the situation before?”

When Reuters contacted India’s former Chief Information Commissioner Sushma Singh and asked for her view, she said the states have their own information commissions like the Central Information Commission, and the CIC “doesn’t exercise any jurisdiction on them.”

Congress general secretary and spokesman Shakeel Ahmad said the law was passed by the UPA government, which showed its intention to ensure transparency in the system, but in a federal structure, power lies more with the state governments and the public should understand this.

“We have passed the law, but the implementation depends on state governments. Central government cannot even send a policeman in any state without their consent. People should understand that Congress and the UPA wanted clean governance which is why RTI was passed. State governments want to hide their wrongdoings, and they misuse their rights,” Ahmad said.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Amit on Twitter @leosamit and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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