For 13 years, the Right to Information Act, 2005, helped citizens obtain information and data from the Government and State institutions that are not readily available in public domain. This information has been able to identify delays in public works, shortfalls and leaks in welfare schemes, and provide crucial insights into government’s decision making.
The RTI Act allows any citizen to make requests for access to data, documents, and other information in the government’s possession. India’s RTI Act has been commonly cited as among the most comprehensive public records access legislations in the world. In recent years, though, activists worry that this system is being made less and less effective, shutting off a crucial means to holding public officials accountable.
These issues are distinct from problems that have been debated with regard to the law since it was passed, such as its limited applicability to (or broad exemptions for) political parties, the judiciary, and intelligence agencies.
Amending the RTI Act
Apart from allowing certain information to be kept secret for national security and sovereignty reasons, the RTI Act makes one exemption: it prohibits personal data disclosure of citizens by the government, unless there is an overriding public interest in doing so. The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, amended this qualified prohibition into a total prohibition.
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The National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) sounded the alarm on this provision earlier this year, arguing that it would make ‘social audits’ in rations distribution impossible to carry out. In social audits, a community member gets a list of rations beneficiaries through an RTI request, and individually verifies that the beneficiaries got what they appear to have received on paper.
There are also concerns that powerful public officials would evade accountability by invoking this blanket ban on disclosing personal information.
Past amendments to the RTI Act have also raised concerns. The Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019 gave the Union Government unilateral power in deciding how long information commissioners, who hear appeals against unsatisfactory or absent RTI responses, can serve, and what their salaries are.
The RTI Act itself isn’t the only way activists see the transparency it has ushered in undermined. The RTI Act’s implementation is dependent on subordinate Rules made by the Union Government and State Governments. For instance, the simple matter of what payment method a public authority can accept is left to the States to decide.
This can cause complications. For instance, some States like Tamil Nadu do not accept Indian Postal Orders (IPOs), which are cheques that can be bought at many post offices, and attached to an application as payment. IPOs are generally the easiest payment method to obtain. Other payment methods are less convenient or otherwise burdensome — court fee stamps, for instance, can only be purchased at a courthouse, and a demand draft for ₹10 may require a processing fee that is over twice that amount. Cash is only accepted in person at a public authority’s office (it is illegal to send banknotes by post, and it is not always practical for a citizen to go to a government office).
Tardy appointments to information commissions — the Central Information Commission (CIC) for the Union Government, and various State Information Commissions (SICs) — have also undermined confidence in the RTI framework, as appeals can take months or even years to be heard, if ever. The Jharkhand SIC, for instance, has had no commissioners to hear appeals since May 2020, essentially suspending the ability to appeal ineffective administration of the RTI Act in Jharkhand.
Allowing RTI applications to be filed online largely removes large barriers: instead of obtaining uncommon financial instruments, citizens can simply file a request online and pay with UPI. However, many States do not have an online RTI portal, and even if they do, it is common for many State Government bodies to simply not be registered on the portal.
The Union Government’s RTI portal — launched in 2013 — is past its prime in some ways, too. While many public authorities under the Union Government are on the portal, filing applications on it has become harder. Having an account on the RTIOnline portal allowed citizens to have their personal particulars filled in on each application by default. Now, however, the facility to create an account has disappeared, and the site forces all users to enter their particulars afresh each time they file an application.
Further, past data of applicants has been stuttering in and out of the portal. In August, data of applications filed by users before 2022 disappeared without a trace, and after The Hindu reported this disappearance, the Government restored the applications. But the site is still slow, and at least one user — who lost his account entirely — has been complaining that data of his applications and appeals are still not showing up on the site.
Beyond the evident structural problems that institutions and websites for RTI pose, dissatisfaction is growing at the most basic level. More and more first appeals are being filed, Venkatesh Nayak, Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative NGO, said in an analysis of the newest report by the CIC. This indicates, according to Mr. Nayak, that people are increasingly further dissatisfied with the information they are receiving from public officials.
While activists have long warned of the weakening of the RTI Act, most of the damage they have seen is not merely from changes in the text of the law, but from the ways that various institutions across different Government apparatuses discharge their duties, in the narrowing of avenues to conveniently file requests and obtain information after doing so, and having appeals fall on unstaffed appeal bodies.
- The RTI Act allows any citizen to make requests for access to data, documents, and other information in the government’s possession. In recent years, though, activists worry that this system is being made less and less effective, shutting off a crucial means to holding public officials accountable.
- These issues are distinct from problems that have been debated with regard to the law since it was passed, such as its limited applicability to (or broad exemptions for) political parties, the judiciary, and intelligence agencies.
- The RTI Act itself isn’t the only way activists see the transparency it has ushered in undermined. The RTI Act’s implementation is dependent on subordinate Rules made by the Union Government and State Governments. For instance, the simple matter of what payment method a public authority can accept is left to the States to decide.