Vidya Subrahmaniam

NEW DELHI: A recent report on the Right to Information Act has busted the myth that the Act was used mainly by government employees interested in accessing information relating to their careers.

The report, ‘The People’s RTI Assessment-2008,’ said only 15 per cent of the urban applicants and 6 per cent of the rural applicants were government employees. It also dispelled the notion that only the educated better-off accessed the Act: almost 60 per cent of the rural applicants and 40 per cent of the urban applicants were not even graduates.

Further, 30 per cent of the rural applicants and 15 per cent of the urban applicants were from below the poverty line families. However, the RTI users were overwhelmingly men.

Brought out jointly by the Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group (RaaG) and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), the report was based on interviews with 35,000 people in villages, towns and cities across 10 States.

The two RTI groups filed 800 applications and studied data relating to another 25,000.

The report found that four lakh villagers and 16 lakh urban residents used the Act in the first two-and-half years since its enactment. Forty per cent of the rural respondents and 15 per cent of the urban respondents to the survey said they were harassed and threatened by officials.

Many said they were discouraged by Public Information Officers (PIO) from filing applications. Sixty per cent reported success with getting information. Information Commissions rarely invoked the penalty clause to punish errant PIOs. Penalties were imposed in only 284 of the roughly 20,000 cases, in which supply of information was delayed.

The report concluded that the desire for information was huge and widespread. About 65 per cent of those surveyed, including those who had not heard of the Act, saw information as a vital tool and said it would help to solve basic problems.

Keeping this in mind, the report cautioned against the move (by the Department of Personnel and Training) to disallow single-bench hearings of applications. If full-bench hearings were made mandatory, they would adversely affect the functioning of those Information Commissions, including the Central Information Commission, which allowed hearings by single and multiple benches to ensure speedy disposal of cases, the report said.