A new study on the performance of the adjudicators of the Right to Information (RTI) Act has revealed that information commissions (ICs) imposed the penalty for denial of information (in violation of the RTI Act) in only 1.3 per cent of the cases where penalty was imposable. “This destroys the basic framework of incentives and disincentives built into the RTI law and promotes a culture of impunity,” noted the study conducted by Research, Assessment and Analysis Group (RaaG) and Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS).
The RTI Act empowers the ICs to impose penalties of up to Rs. 25,000 on erring Public Information Officers (PIOs). Section 20 of the RTI Act defines the violations for which PIOs should be penalised. By foregoing penalties in cases where it was imposable, the ICs caused an estimated annual loss of Rs. 290 crore to the exchequer, observed the report. “Even more important than the revenue lost is the loss of deterrence value that the threat of penalty was supposed to have provided.”
The study found that the two provisions of the RTI Act invoked the most for denial of information were section 7 (9) (disproportionate diversion of resources) and section 11 (1) (third party information). “Neither of these can themselves be used to deny information,” noted the study.
The “most disturbing trend”, according to the report, was the invention of exemptions that were not part of the RTI Act. Of the 252 appeals analysed, 50 per cent of the denials were found to be in violation of the RTI Act. The ICs denied information because it pertained to previous years, or because information sought was voluminous, or because PIOs claimed the information could not be traced, or because the IC determined that the applicant “had no good reason” for seeking information. “None of these are valid grounds for denial of information,” observed the study.
The research also found that more than 60 per cent of the IC orders analysed contained deficiencies in terms of recording critical facts. Rajasthan and Bihar’s State Information Commissions (SIC) were the worst performers, with 74 per cent and 73 per cent of the orders not describing the information sought.
The study further found that the collective backlog in the disposal of appeals and complaints in the 16 ICs studied, was an “alarming 1,87,974 cases pending as on December 31, 2015.” Compared to December 2013, the pendency had shot up by 240 per cent in Assam SIC, and by more than 60 per cent in Odisha and Punjab. The Chief Information Commission (CIC) saw a rise in pendency of 43 per cent. In nine of the 16 ICs whose data were analysed, the waiting time for a hearing was more than a year. A matter filed before the Assam SIC on January 1, 2016 would come up for hearing in 2046, noted the study.