In 2015, the Right to Information Act celebrated 10 years. The year itself was a peculiar one.
When the NDA government took the oath of office on May 26, 2014 it was widely believed that the Right to Information (RTI) Act, one of the flagship programmes of the outgoing UPA government, would not be on the new government’s agenda.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s observation of 2011 — that officials need to furnish only such information which already exists and is held by the public authority and not collate or create information — was being widely used to deny access to information. And since the inception of the Act, the Central Information Commission (CIC) had passed orders in favour of transparency, embarrassing the government and courts quite often.
In each case, 2015 saw something of a reversal: Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in favour of RTI and the Supreme Court made another observation which helps information seekers. The watchdog CIC, meanwhile, has been returning thousands of second appeals and complaints for technical reasons every month.
Several RTI activists found that officers of various departments who had earlier shared information, suddenly started to claim exemptions and deny information on similar applications after the change of regime at the Centre in May 2014. This, despite the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) issuing many circulars and reminders with regard to RTI under new government. For instances, it asked all public authorities to standardize RTI fee and upload RTI replies on their respective website.
It proposed bringing all public sector financial institutions, banks, all zones of Railways, Maharatnas, Navratnas, central universities and educational institutions, central excise and income tax offices under online portal of RTI. However, the perception that the Modi government was anti-RTI was enough for public authorities to deny information.
At the annual RTI convention on October 16, PM Modi spoke on the RTI Act for the first time: “Citizens should not only have the right to get copies of documents but also ask question and demand accountability from public authorities because the right to ask questions is the very foundation of democracy and it will reinforce their faith in democracy,” he said. The PM had also appealed to government officials to learn from the types of RTI queries coming to them and reform their procedures.
On December 16, the Supreme Court, in the matter of RBI versus Jayantilal N. Mistry and others stated, “It had long since come to our attention that the Public Information Officers (PIO) under the guise of one of the exceptions given under Section 8 of RTI Act, have evaded the general public from getting their hands on the rightful information that they are entitled to.”
This was an important observation because many public authorities had been widely quoting the observation made earlier by Supreme Court Justices RV Raveendran and AK Patnaik in their order dated August 9, 2011, “The nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties.”
While the government and the judiciary were seen to be strengthening the RTI, the CIC was in denial. The beauty of the RTI Act is the simplicity with which anyone can use it. The DoPT had earlier issued a circular saying that, “The application can be made on plain paper. The applicant should mention the address at which the information is required to be sent.”
In 2015 on an average, 1,260-second appeals and complaints were returned by the CIC every month because they did not have the attached required documents or they were not in the `proper’ format.