The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, like its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) predecessor, seems to be failing on suo motu disclosures under the Right to Information Act (RTI).
The department of personnel & training (DoPT) had last month issued an official memorandum directing all central ministries and departments to upload replies to RTI applications and first appeals on their respective websites from October 31. This had drawn a good amount of attention as a move towards transparency, especially because a deadline added an air of immediacy to the efforts.
However, more than a fortnight past deadline, we have few ministries that have complied. And, among those that have, the level of transparency in the replies posted on websites varies from one ministry to another.
A quick review of government websites reveals that the ministries for home and external affairs are the only key offices that have posted replies so far. On the home ministry website, you need to know the RTI applicant’s name to locate the reply. By comparison, the external affairs ministry is more open; it has listed out subject-wise replies, eliminating the need for an applicants’ name. Most other ministries have only made the most basic proactive disclosures mandated by the RTI Act, 2005. Among government departments, DoPT, the nodal agency for RTI, lists out replies.
Besides, DoPT’s latest directive to ministries on RTI disclosures is not a completely new one. On April 15 last year, a similar office memorandum had been issued to ministries and departments under the UPA regime, saying all public authorities shall “proactively disclose” RTI applications and appeals received and maintain their responses on websites.
While the scope of suo motu disclosures was extended, the authorities were exempted from posting personal information. Also, that memo had not set any deadline, and most public authorities did not implement it.
More than 18 months and a change of government later, DoPT’s October 21 memo on the same subject sought “immediate action” in uploading replies to RTI applications and first appeals on websites from October 31.
The NDA government’s experiment with making RTI replies public has come at a time when the mechanism for appointment of the chief information commissioner (CIC) has been tweaked. For the first time, applications for the post have been sought through and advertisement. That November 24 is the last date for receiving applications implies the organisation stays headless for months.
Continuing on the transparency theme, DoPT in November 10 came out with a circular on offering short-term internships to law students for conducting an analysis of RTI applications received by select public authorities. The one-month internship plan, starting December 1, was for “improving transparency and accountability in the government through effective implementation of RTI”, a DoPT note said.
When the NDA government had taken charge at the Centre in May this year, the pendency of appeals before the CIC stood at 3,662. With no CIC in office, the number of pending petitions has now reached 9,956. The total number of pending queries before the information commissioner – some of those for more than two years – stands at 34,261.
Shailesh Gandhi, former CIC and an RTI activist, says the move to put up replies on ministry websites “will lead to better transparency”. It might also deter public information officers from giving “frivolous replies”.
Satyananda Mishra, a former CIC who earlier was secretary in DoPT, told Business Standard that the NDA government’s move could be interpreted in two ways – one, it is a step to make things open and transparent; and two, the fear of being identified might prevent many from filing RTI applications.
“Knowledge of one seeking information on a particular issue or organisation could hit his privacy,” according to Mishra. And that might discourage people from seeking information. “So, the move could be interpreted as both good and not entirely good,” he pointed out.
The attitude within the ministries is yet to change. Senior officials of two infrastructure ministries that Business Standard spoke to spoke about paucity of resources to deal with RTI-related work. “Officials handling RTI have other responsibilities as well, but the deluge takes other official duties away from them,” said one.
Another official narrated a recent meeting of a minister with the officials in charge of RTI in his ministry. “The tone suggested keenness to get away with doing the least,” he said. There are other issues, too.
A source complained how activists would take information under RTI and immediately run to court to challenge the decisions. He pointed to a case where even the PMO had filed a revision petition before the CIC to deny information. In any case, the trick to go slow on “difficult” replies was a norm in many ministries, he admitted. Subhash Chandra Agarwal, known in the RTI circle for his regular queries on numerous subjects, said it might not be practical for members of the public to look at websites of so many ministries to check RTI responses, and that without the option of subject-wise selection.
According to experts in the area, to make searches really transparent, the engine should be uniform across ministries and departments, so that citizens know how and where to seek information. At present, it is ad hoc. “DoPT must give a uniform model to all ministries to follow for putting up RTI replies on sites,” Mishra said. Ministries had taken several years to comply with the proactive-disclosure clause under Section 4 (i)(b) of the RTI Act.
RTI, which came during the UPA rule and was a dominant theme in the country until recently, might be losing some of its aggression with the emergence of some other issues coming to forefront, said Mishra. However, Gandhi said his perception was that “RTI is continuing to grow, albeit at a slightly slower pace than earlier. It has reached most citizens who are active in governance matters.” The slow rate of disposals at information commissions is responsible for a “slight dampening in growth”, Gandhi added.
|RTI DISCLOSURES IN PUBLIC DOMAIN: THEN & NOW|
Source: DoPT, ministry websites