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Introduction

  • Despite the fact that India passed the Right to Information (RTI) Act 17 years ago, the country’s transparency regime remains a mirage, with nearly 3.15 lakh complaints or appeals pending with 26 information commissions across the country.
  • According to a Satark Nagrik Sangathan report, the backlog of appeals or complaints in commissions is steadily increasing year after year.
  • Objectives of the Central Information Commission
    • To receive and investigate complaints from any citizen in accordance with the RTI Act.
    • To receive and decide on any citizen’s second appeal as provided in the RTI Act and RTI rules 2012.
    • To exercise the powers granted to CIC by the RTI Act.
    • To carry out the monitoring and reporting responsibilities outlined in Section 25 of the RTI Act.

Functions and powers

  • To receive and investigate any person’s complaint about information requested under the RTI act.
  • It has the authority to order an investigation into any matter if there are reasonable grounds (suo-moto power).
  • While conducting an investigation, the Commission has the authority of a civil court in terms of summoning witnesses, requiring documents, and so on.
  • Decision in the second appeal for information;
  • Record-keeping instructions
  • Penalty imposition, as well as monitoring and reporting, including the preparation of an annual report

Problems with the CIC’s operation

  • Delays and backlogs: On average, it takes the CIC 388 days (more than a year) to resolve an appeal/complaint filed with the commission.
    • According to a report released last year, more than 2.2 lakh Right to Information cases are pending at the Central and State Information Commissions (ICs).
  • No Penalties: According to the report, government officials are rarely punished for breaking the law.
    • Penalties were imposed in only 2.2% of cases that were resolved, despite previous analysis showing a rate of approximately 59% violations that should have triggered the penalty imposition process.
  • Lack of Transparency: There is no record of the selection criteria, etc.
  • Amendment and centralization of powers: The Right to Information (Amendment) Act of 2019 amended the 2005 Right to Information Act.
    • In the parent law, the RTI Act of 2005 specified the tenure, terms of service, and salaries of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (ICs) at the central and state levels.
    • The RTI (Amendment) Act of 2019 repealed these provisions, stating that the central government will notify the term and quantum of salary via rules.

Conclusion and Next Steps

  • Democracy is all about government by the people, for the people, and by the people. To achieve the third paradigm, the state must begin to recognise the value of an informed public and the role it plays in the country’s overall development. In this context, underlying issues with the RTI Act should be addressed so that it can serve society’s information needs.
  • The role of information commissions is critical, especially during Covid-19, to ensure that people have access to information about healthcare facilities, social security programmes, and the delivery of essential goods and services to those in need.
  • The Supreme Court issued a slew of directives to the Central and State governments in 2019 to fill vacancies on Central and State Information Commissions in a transparent and timely manner.
  • Urgent record digitization and proper record management are critical, as lack of remote access to records during the lockdown has been widely cited as the reason for commissions’ inability to conduct hearings on appeals and complaints.