The Kerala State Information Commission is faced with a large backlog of appeal petitions, and the problem is worsening day by day. Vacancies in the Commission and staff shortages and lack of proper systems added to the problem.
Appeal petitions now take more than 15 months to be disposed off. The State Chief Information Commissioner Palat Mohandas and Commissioners V. V. Giry and K. Rajagopal differ on the number of pending cases and the reasons for that, though they agree that pendency is going up.
According to the annual report of the Commission for 2009-10, the Commission received 1256 complaints (on non-disposal of requests and other omissions and commissions by State public information officers) and 1556 second appeals on decisions of public authorities in 2009-10. During the same period 1350 complaints and 842 appeals were disposed-off. However, according to data furnished by the two commissioners, only 226 appeals were disposed off during the period. The Commission has received 4678 appeal petitions between January 2006 and June 2010. Of this only 61 per cent could be disposed of. At the end of June this year, 1848 appeals were waiting disposal.
The data show that the rate of disposal dropped considerably during the past one year. The appeal petitions disposed of during the past six months was only 18 against 708 petitions filed during that period.
However, the Chief Commissioner disputed these figures. He said that the number of cases disposed during the period was indeed higher than 18, though pendency was high.
The figures varied with respect to complaints also though the disposal rates were high. While the report spoke of disposal of 1350 complaints, the data furnished by the Commissioners showed disposal of only 1010 complaints. At the end of June, 534 complaints were pending.
Mr. Giry and Dr. Rajagopal maintain that one of the main reasons for low rate disposal of appeal petitions was the practice of joint hearing of appeals by the State Chief Information Commissioner and one of the commissioners. If the commissioners heard cases independently, the disposal rate would have been higher. Mr. Mohandas said that this was absurd. Joint hearing was specified to avoid inconsistencies in orders issued by different commissioners. He was more efficient than the commissioners as could be seen from the disposal rates of complaints. Commissioners should know procedure in government departments and should be able to dictate orders properly.
However, this was not often the case. Eminent persons were not being appointed as commissioners.
Mr. Giry and Dr. Rajagopal said that the Commission lacked sufficient staff though there were unnecessary posts such as that of engineering expert, IT expert and training expert. There were not enough confidential assistants to dictate orders. Everything related to petitions had to be done by the commissioners while the staff provided little support. The work distribution of staff was also not proper.
RTI activists point out that the failure of the Commission to enforce its decisions as one of the major reasons why the Commission received so many complaints and appeal petitions. The Commission was often reluctant to fine officials. (Between December 2006 and March 2010, the Commission has imposed fines on 154 officials). Even fines do not work at times.
An applicant from Kollam did not get the information he requested from a school at Chavara even after the Commission fined headmaster of the school. Public authorities often give a short-shrift to orders of the Commission directing them to take disciplinary action against staff. Petitions seeking execution of its orders are treated by the Commission as fresh complaints and there are instances of orders remaining unexecuted for months.
In view of these, the activists have suggested that the Commission should use its powers to summon officials and seek production of documents. If officials fail to turn up with documents requested, arrest warrants should be issued. Magsaysay Award winner Arvind Kejriwal has submitted a representation to the Commission to issue rules in this regard. However, the Commission has so far taken no decision on it.
Another reason for piling up of petitions is the ineffectiveness of the first appeal process. The Annual report of the Commission itself notes that the first appeal process, in practice, became a farce.
Often, the first appellate authorities, who are officials above the State public information officers, do not dispose of the appeals within the stipulated period of 45 days. In some cases, the appeals are never disposed off. Even when they do, the appellate authorities do not meticulously and judiciously examine the complaints or hear the parties before taking the decision. They either agree with the decision of the State public information officer blatantly or issue hasty and ambiguous directions to the officer, the report notes.
Judicial authorities have been resisting attempts to elicit information. The High Court of Kerala has issued rules specifying that no application for information or document relating to any judicial proceedings or a policy matter should be entertained. The Commission has struck down these rules on the ground they violated provisions of the Right to Information Act. Both the rules and the orders of the Commission are now on challenge before the High Court itself.
Activists allege lack of transparency in the proceedings of the Commission and access of parties to records before the Commission. However, Mr. Mohandas denied this. Space was the only constraint in admitting third parties to witness the proceedings, he said.