12 Years After Being Introduced, RTI Has Close To 24,000 Pending Petitions. Does Anyone Care?

The Right to Information (RTI) Act, came into force about twelve years ago, when India was struggling to curb corruption, particularly in government offices. However, today, it’s effectiveness and relevance is being incessantly questioned. People are losing faith in RTI because of the inactiveness of activists and distrust in governmental agencies, which either delay the information sought or don’t reply at all.

In fact, information obtained through the act itself, reveals that the government has cut down the budget for the advertisement of RTI by 80%. Many RTI activists accuse the government of not responding to their queries, and the employees argue that the government has worsened the condition of RTI in past few years despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking about encouraging the use of this act. He has many a time, advised the various departments of government to keep in mind the three Ts while responding to the RTI applications – Timeline, Transparency, and Trouble-free. However, the implementation of this principle has been lax in most cases, if not all.

Recently, the central government issued a memorandum instructing its officers and employees to not leak “sensitive” information. Whether this is an attempt to actually prevent misuse of such data, or a threat to transparency as far as this act is concerned, is not entirely clear.

RTI has always been a very strong tool in the hands of the fourth pillar of democracy – an independent press. This law not only provides strength to the media, but its birth is also the result of a campaign started by media people before the act was enacted. In 1982, when the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) was not even born, the second Press Commission and Press Parishad advocated for Right to Information. Media continued to be an active part of the mass movement of MKSS that started after 1990.

The ‘Right to Information- Right to Live’ slogan was first given by Prabhash Joshi in his newspaper Jansatta. Some of the institutions of media saw RTI as “new journalism” and it was utilizing this right properly. Perhaps this is why journalists who used RTI as a tool to extract information from the government were employed in many newspapers and news channels. Reporters were expected to use RTI for making their reports more comprehensive and factually rich.

TV-9 is the first channel of India which established an RTI and investigation desk, whereas UNI TV is the first news agency of South Asia which did the same. The social networking websites also boosted the dissemination of information’s sought under RTI’s. Hence, the mainstream media had no choice but to include a sizable amount of this information in their headlines because they could not afford to avoid them.

Many a time, only filing an RTI to an important department became breaking news. The facts related to Batla House encounter, Shohrabuddin encounter, police torturing the general public in Gani plot area in Godhra, Hashimpura riots, Mumbai attacks, Parliament attack, Delhi Jal Board, robbing of the amount reserved for Child labour welfare in MP, funds of political parties, Bhopal gas tragedy, foreign relations of Indian government with ruling communist party of China and People’s Liberation Army, hooliganism of the medicine companies, scam in almost all the health-related schemes for minorities, rent of wakf property and many more serious and interesting, true stories were brought to the public’s attention using the Right to Information as a tool.

It is no secret that the amount of significant information delivered through RTI is extremely limited. Most of the activists who used to file RTIs and were instrumental in unravelling the truth in many spheres of public interest have almost become silent. If figures are to be believed, the Central Information Commission has more than 23,879 pending cases of second appeal and complaint.There is an urgent need to change the way things are working (in fact, are rather stagnant) right now; Failing which, it may take over four years (or more) to deal with all the pending applications.

The condition of State Information Commissions is more worrisome. It is important to note here that Article 15 of RTI says that it is mandatory for every state to have an Information Commission. This commission must consist of one Chief Information Executive and more than ten Information Executives (depending upon the requirement). But the matter of concern is that the basic provision of this law has not been met. There are a number of states, where the office of CIE is still empty and no efforts are being made to fill these posts.

Undoubtedly, the government cannot afford to abolish it completely but RTI seems to be waning slowly. Information is not just being delayed, it’s also being denied, which in turn, is discouraging activists to file an RTI.

Even the media has gotten disenchanted with RTI and as a result, is unable to provide comprehensive and coherent news to the citizens. However, there is no denying that if media realises the potential of RTI again and revives it the true sense the whole picture will change. It has the power to push the government to be transparent and respond t RTIs, instead of evading them.

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