Alongside a series of high profile corruption cases exposed by citizens using the Right to Information (RTI) Act, those using the sunshine law have found a slow erosion of its effectiveness.
While dozens of information applicants report that they are being denied information on flimsy grounds, the pendency of thousands of cases before the central information commission has led to a waiting period of up to two years in some cases.
Over the last one year, DNA filed nearly 200 RTI applications with various government departments at the central and state levels. Over 50% of the applications were turned down. Some reluctant public information officers (PIOs) furnished misleading information. The reasons cited for rejecting information are startling revelations.
Following an application filed in December with the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) seeking information on its inspection report and a draft report on the working of the atomic energy regulatory board (AERB), the PIO said such information cannot be furnished as it “serves no useful purpose to the society”. The final CAG report on the AERB should suffice, the PIO felt.
In another instance, while an application said the information being sought pertains from 2010 to date, the Shipping Corporation of India rejected it saying the time period was not mentioned.
Bimal Kumar Khemani, RTI activist from Aligarh who heads the TRAP group, which is officially certified by the department of personnel and training (DoPT), said the biggest problem is PIOs are now not afraid of being penalised.
“Earlier, PIOs were penalised for furnishing wrong or misleading information. Now, the CIC rarely imposes a fine,” Khemani said.
RTIs filed by DNA with Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India, Bank of India and State Bank of India (SBI) too were turned down.
Some RTI activists have also reported instances where PIOs cite minor errors in applications for denial of information, despite the law actually mandating that they assist such applicants in seeking information. DNA has copies of RTI queries rejected due to reasons, including absence of signature, typographical errors such as a year typed as 20111 instead of 2011, and more.
“Even first-time applicants were getting information under the RTI Act two years back,” KC Das, an RTI activist from Orissa, said. Circumstances have changed now, he said.
There is also lack of clarity among PIOs on what information is truly confidential. When DNA filed RTI applications with the ministry of corporate affairs and with the registrar of companies in Mumbai seeking copies of a report on a well-known corporate house, the responses from either PIO were startlingly different. While the ministry furnished the information, the ROC Mumbai denied the information saying it was third party information.
When Pardeep K Rapria, a Supreme Court lawyer and former legal consultant to the chief information commission, filed an application demanding information on action taken on complaints of alleged corruption by G Subramanian, under secretary, CIC, he was denied information on grounds that the information was personal. “On the one hand, the CIC talks about transparency and protection to information seekers, and on the other hand, when information is sought about its own functioning, the information seeker is threatened,” Rapria said.
At least 30% of government departments are not submitting to the CIC annual returns on the status of RTI applications received and processed. Worse, applications denied on grounds of errors are not even mentioned in the annual report, even though activists are crying themselves hoarse that such data analysis is key to measure the implementation of the law.
Tomorrow: How the dept of atomic energy fobbed off info seekers