It has been more than two years since the Right to Information Act (RTI) came into force in October 2005. Immediately after its enforcement, a concern was expressed that adequate efforts were not being made in official quarters to implement the Act in its true spirit.
Perhaps it was not fully realised that the Act would take some time before working to its potential. But, people realised soon enough the import and power of this legislation. While there were very few petitions seeking information under RTI to begin with, today there seems to be a deluge of such requests. It has not only resulted in increased confidence among the general public about the utility of RTI, but also in government departments becoming more transparent and responsible than they had ever been.
Consequent to sundry appeals for information under RTI, many path-breaking decisions and judgements by the Central Information Commission and various State Information Commissions have resulted in substantive dilution of the draconian Official Secrets Act, 1923 which had been the last resort of a reluctant bureaucrat. Even though today the right to seek information under RTI has become a powerful tool for exercising one's democratic rights, a lot needs to be done to further strengthen and reinforce this right.
The fee required to seek and obtain information has been made prohibitive by many government agencies defeating the very intent and purpose for which RTI was conceived. While prohibitive costs do discourage non-serious information seekers, they also repel the many genuine ones who are not very well-off.
Then, there is a practical problem relating to the shortage of staff and officers for attending to such requests under RTI. Because of this, there has been an overload of pending requests with different information commissions and government bodies. As non-compliance under the Act results in personal financial loss including the fear of departmental proceedings, a government staff or officer is more than keen to attend to RTI requests before anything else. As a result, the normal functioning of these departments and bodies is getting severely hampered.
Some of these problems have arisen because many government departments and bodies have still not put the requisite in-house information into the public domain as they are supposed to do under RTI. This also results in delay or outright refusal in furnishing the desired information to the petitioners.
Moreover, many government departments and bodies have still not notified the Assistant Public Information Officer (APIO), Public Information Officer (PIO) and the Appellate Authority (AA) as warranted by the Act. This has resulted in many RTI petitions being shuffled around among various government departments and officers on the pretext that one has not been notified as APIO, PIO or AA to be able to entertain such a petition or that the desired information is not readily available in sharable form frustrating the purpose of the Act further.
There is an urgent need to do some serious thinking as far as implementation of the Act is concerned. All government departments and bodies should not only put all the permissible information pertaining to their establishments in readily sharable form, they should also immediately notify and properly publicise the APIO, PIO and AA for accessing information relating their offices.
In fact, it is proposed that as far as possible, a self-contained office should have APIO, PIO and AA in the same premises. It makes the system more efficient and also makes it easier for the common public. For example, if the District Magistrate starts entertaining all RTI petitions pertaining to every office under his/her control and supervision, then he/she would be left with no time to attend to his/her normal work.
Moreover, central and state governments should make further clarifications to ensure that the cost of seeking and obtaining information under RTI in no case becomes prohibitive. Also, the entire process of moving an RTI application has to be further simplified. The phone-in system, as instituted in Bihar and other states, should now be extended to rest of the country. This helps a common citizen avoid unnecessary trips to the government office. E-governance, too, should be utilised to the maximum for the purposes of RTI.
There is need for a dedicated staff and officers to attend to RTI requests and also to pre-empt the hampering of the normal functioning of the office by engaging regular staff and officers. Further, there is need for specific financial grant to a government office for meeting various expenses required to be incurred for provisioning of information and for further strengthening and reinforcing the service delivery system under RTI.
If the Act and related implementation mechanisms were modified and refined further, the common citizen would have more powers in his hand and this would go a long way in strengthening and reinforcing India's democratic foundations.