The track-record of the implementation of the RTI Act both by the central and state governments shows there is little to inspire confidence among RTI applicants.
In August, the central government opposed the move to bring political parties under the RTI Act. In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) said if political parties were held to be public authorities under RTI Act, it would hamper their smooth internal working, which was not the “objective” of the RTI Act and was not envisaged by Parliament.
The Act, which took 15 years to come into being on October 12, 2005, had generated high hopes about making government functioning transparent, but it has been found hobbling.
For starters, RTI applicants who dare to take on the wrong-doers have often paid with their lives. A case in point is the death of 17-year-old Yallalinga Kuruba of Kanakapura village in Koppal district of Karnataka in January this year a day after he filed his RTI plea.
Kuruba’s death is not an isolated case. In the last 10 years of the Act’s existence, at least 33 deaths of RTI applicants have been reported, the highest (nine) from Maharashtra followed by Gujarat (eight).
The most infamous case among these killings was of Satish Shetty, an RTI activist from Pune who had sought information about land grabbing by developers along the Pune-Mumbai highway.
Vijay Kumbhar, a top RTI activist in Maharashtra, says the real culprits seemed to have been arrested only in one case in Gujarat.
Shetty’s case highlights the seriousness of the situation. The police “gave up” attempts to locate the culprits and so did the Central Bureau of Investigation, which was forced to close the case, only to reopen it after court directions.
Another big problem is the antecedents of those being appointed as information commissioners to decide on RTI appeals.
In July this year, the Anti-Corruption Bureau in Maharashtra filed FIRs against two State Information Commissioners in connection with the Maharashtra Sadan scam. The two had earlier served in the state’s Public Works Department, then led by NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal. Their proximity to Bhujbal allegedly earned them the job of information commissioners.
All the eight State Information Commissioners in Maharashtra have been retired bureaucrats.
Earlier, a State Information Commissioner Maharashtra was sacked after his alleged role in the infamous Adarsh scam as the principal secretary of the state’s Urban Development Department came to light.
Maharashtra is not alone. In Kerala, the Governor had to suspend a State Information Commissioner after allegations surfaced that he tried to interfere with a vigilance investigation into gifting of government land by the chief minister to one of his relatives.
Appointments of retired bureaucrats, activists say, has adversely hit the implementation of the RTI Act. Retired bureaucrats are loathe to give decisions against officials with whom they had served for obvious reasons.
In states, appointments of Information Commissioners are made by a panel headed by the chief minister which includes a minister or deputy chief minister and the Opposition leader.
Currently, three-fourth of chief information commissioners in different states of in the country are retired bureaucrats.
The appointment of retired bureaucrats actually runs contrary what the Act stipulates as well as what the Supreme Court has said. In 2013, the SC clearly ruled that the persons eligible for appointment should be of “public eminence, with knowledge and experience in the specified fields and should preferably have some judicial background and possess judicial acumen and experience to fairly and effectively deal with the intricate questions of law that would come up for determination before the Information Commission in its day-to-day working”.
The apathy is not limited to states. It begins from the Centre. The central government agreed on the name of the Chief Information Commissioner only in June this year, a full nine months after the last CIC retired. Since then, the highest RTI body in the country had remained headless.