Too little information

Is the CIC failing to meet the high expectations vested in the office?

Written by Shibani Ghosh | Published:August 9, 2012 3:38 am

The Central Information Commission (CIC),as the apex body under the RTI Act,has several important responsibilities. It is an adjudicator of cases pertaining to the non-disclosure of information; a “monitor” overseeing the compliance of public authorities with the RTI Act; and a “reporter” to Parliament on the status of the implementation of the act.

The CIC’s relevance is scarcely limited to the discharging of its formal statutory functions. It has come to be perceived as an institution capable of improving transparency and accountability in public institutions and,thereby,significantly enhancing the quality of our democratic polity.

But is the CIC meeting the high expectations that the Indian citizenry has placed in it? Regrettably,no. There are several tell-tale signs of underachievement. The number of cases pending before the CIC crossed 28,000 in April. Increasingly,applicants have to wait for over a year for appeals against non-disclosure of information to be heard. Citizens who receive favourable orders await compliance,and their requests to the CIC for enforcement lie unattended. Nor is the CIC taking particularly vigorous measures to encourage proactive disclosure of information by public authorities.

There is growing concern that if the CIC continues to function as it does today,it will impair rather than nurture the RTI regime,and that in the near future,the average citizen may grow sceptical about its efficacy. Here are some of the issues that have contributed to this unhappy situation.

First,a high number of cases are pending before the CIC. While the CIC is not statutorily required to hear cases within a particular time period,the underlying spirit of the act is speedy access to information. The pendency of cases threatens to shake public confidence in the institution and,more generally,in the RTI Act. Information sought through RTI applications is often most relevant at a particular time. If an appeal before the CIC routinely takes more than a year to be heard,citizens may not find it imperative to turn to it.

A second problem is the CIC’s inability to ensure compliance with its orders. The CIC does not have contempt powers and the only way in which it can ensure compliance is to use its power to impose a penalty. Unfortunately,the CIC does not devote much time to complaints alleging non-enforcement of orders. The primary reason for this is the work load — fresh cases are prioritised to reduce pendency. Ensuring that orders are complied with is a time-consuming and difficult task — whether complete and correct information has been given is rarely a simple,objective evaluation. Also,penalty proceedings are a lengthy process. The CIC’s inability or reluctance to ensure compliance with its orders is likely to have at least two consequences,both injurious to the RTI regime. First,it deprives citizens of a sense of “justice”. Second,it creates an impression that the CIC does not take its own orders seriously and this could erode the hard-won credibility of the CIC.

The quality of orders issued by the CIC is the third issue. Orders are often cryptic and devoid of any significant reasoning,or even the basic factual background. This makes it difficult to monitor compliance and,importantly,deprives such orders of precedential value. As a young institution,the CIC has to establish itself as a body of high standing. If its orders are routinely struck down or stayed by courts for lack of reasoning,doubts may be cast on its decision-making capabilities.

The fourth issue is the limited time spent by the CIC in its monitor avatar. According to the act,the CIC can make assessments as to whether public authorities are performing their duties in consonance with the letter and spirit of the act. If there is a deviation,the CIC can make suitable recommendations to the public authority. This could include directing the public authority to proactively disclose certain information in accordance with the act. Unfortunately,the CIC is not devoting a great deal of time to such issues,and an important opportunity to make public institutions more transparent and accountable is being squandered.

Apart from these,there are several external factors that affect the CIC. These include lack of financial autonomy,non-appointment of new information commissioners,dependence on contract staff rather than regular recruitment,and insufficient office space. These are issues that have to be addressed if the CIC is to work effectively. But here the primary decision-making power is the Centre.

That need not stop the CIC from addressing problems that are within its control. It is not bound by regimented governmental procedure,and must find innovative ways of coping with its increasing work load. The CIC needs to recognise its central role in promoting transparency and accountability,and undertake reform measures on a war footing. Its credibility and strength is critical to the health of the RTI regime and to our larger aspiration for a truly inclusive and meaningful democracy.

The writer,a research associate at Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,was a legal consultant to the CIC,express@expressindia.com

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