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RTI may become defunct

Given the rate of increase in applications and the slower rate of disposal, in another four years’ time the RTI Act will be essentially defunct.

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RTI may become defunct
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The massive pile-up of cases has left RTI activists frustrated. Bhaskar Prabhu says the state chief information commissioner (CIC) is still struggling to clear the backlog of late 2006 and applications of early 2007 are aplenty. The 2009 torrent has already begun.

Suresh Joshi, the state chief information commissioner, says the delays are due to shortage of staff. “There was backlog earlier when we started as I was the only commissioner. Now, of the 15,200 cases (still pending), only 20% are old ones.”

Another RTI activist, Krishnaraj Rao, alleges that the information commissioners are responsible for delays. “They are largely ex-bureaucrats and they are sympathetic towards PIOs — again bureaucrats — instead of citizens,” he claims. “It will not be long when people have no hopes from RTI due to delays of more than a year,” adds Rao.

Given the rate of increase in applications and the slower rate of disposal, in another four years’ time the RTI Act will be essentially defunct — since the backlog would have risen to four years. The Act, never a favourite with babus who like to guard even minor information like the crown jewels, is thus on the verge of being rendered useless. Which is exactly the way many bureaucrats would want it.

According to official records, the Maharashtra CIC received approximately 3.16 lakh applications in 2007. With six information commissioners and one chief, around 1,400 appeals and complaints are heard on a monthly basis, which the commissioners say is better than the national average.

According to the CIC, the figures for 2008 are expected to show an increase of 20% in applications. This increase, activists feel, will go on increasing every year with fewer answers coming their way. “It will only add and compound the total backlog to 30% by the end of each year. By 2013, we will be having a backlog of four years. What is the point? The Act was all about speedier disposal of information,” says Prabhu.

Prabhu points out that the information commission does not have to deal with cases like the courts do. In the judicial system, the average disposal of cases by each judge is 2,600 per year, thanks to the debates and arguments between parties. The state information commission, on the other hand, clears around 1,400 cases every month.
“Why do they take so much time? There are no lawyers debating the issue. It is a simple exercise where they have to issue orders,” says Prabhu. 

The key idea behind the RTI Act was to provide transparency and quick access to information to the public. Officials who hid such information were to be fined. It is this timeliness that is being sacrificed by the commissioners, allege activists, and there is a fear that the Act is being subverted and could soon  become irrelevant.
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