POINT IAS

Right to Information

Important excerpts from The Hindu:

  • Government officials face hardly any punishment for violating the law by denying applicants the legitimate information sought by them. The State and Central Information Commissions, which are the courts of appeal under the Act, failed to impose penalties in about 97% of the cases where violations took place in 2018-19.
  • Chief Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava has accused government officials of violating the Right to Information Act with impunity, taking advantage of court orders that they cannot be penalised except in cases of mala fide intent.
  • The need for penalties to be imposed against the officials who delay or wrongly deny information under the Act.
  • State and Central information commissions (CIC) had their powers curbed by judicial orders requiring proof of mala fide intent on the part of the offender. “Public information officers take advantage of this as it is very hard to prove mala fide intent,” he said.
  • This destroys the basic framework of incentives and disincentives built into the RTI law, promotes a culture of impunity and exasperates applicants who seek information at a high cost and often against great odds.
  • By not imposing even the legally indicated and mandatory penalties, information commissions are increasing their own workload and encouraging delays and illegitimate denials for the public.
  • There were 2.18 lakh cases pending with the commissions in March 2019, in comparison with 1.85 lakh pending cases a year earlier.
  • As of October 11, 2019, the Central Information Commission alone had over 33,000 pending cases. Any new appeal would have to wait more than one-and-a-half years for resolution. The backlog is exacerbated by the fact that four out of 11 CIC posts are yet to be filled.
  • Over the last 14 years, the RTI Act has acted as a bridge between the government and the people.
  • RTI Amendment – The Centre pushed the RTI Amendments Act through both houses of Parliament, giving itself the power to set the tenure and salaries of State and Central information commissioners, thus potentially threatening their autonomy. Despite widespread vacancies, no new commissioners have been appointed since then.
  • Delay in appointment of information commissioners is a big problem.
  • In today’s India, seeking information under the RTI Act is fraught with risks; there have been several instances where RTI activists have been subject to attacks, and, in some cases, have had to pay with their lives. According to the provisions of the Act, the identity of information seekers under the RTI should be kept confidential but in most cases this provision is observed more in its breach. There is a dire need to tighten the provisions of the Act to ensure confidentiality of whistle-blowers and all those seeking information.
  • The Central government established an online RTI portal whereby any Indian citizen, including Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), can apply for information under the RTI Act with the desired Ministry or Department under the Central government. An applicant can also pay the requisite fee through online payment in this portal and submit the RTI application, the petition said.
  • Establish Right to Information (RTI) web portals across all States to enable citizens, especially those living abroad, to file RTI applications online.
  • The Delhi High Court has remarked that giving judgment on the policy framework of an organisation and directing change of policies are not envisaged under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Giving judgment on the policy framework of an organisation and directing a change of policy are not envisaged in the RTI Act.
  • Jan Soochna (public information) portal, which is the Rajasthan government’s latest effort to offer wider and easier access to the State’s increasingly digitised databases. The single window portal aims to increase transparency and accountability in governance. It has 82 different information request options for 32 schemes across 13 departments. It not only explains the schemes but also provides real-time information on beneficiaries, authorities in charge, progress, etc.
  • Over the last five years, Rajasthan has been digitising and integrating databases, including flagship social sector schemes, using Aadhaar-based verifications and payments. In 2017, the Department of Information Technology and Communication (DoITC) began to host ‘Digital Dialogues’. Bimonthly meetings were held with interested citizens including activists from MKSS and the wider collective of the Soochna Evam Rozgaar Adhikar Abhiyan, to discuss how to open access to such databases and present them for public use. This is an example of use of “technology for integrated service delivery”.
  • Real-time, individual-level data are needed by the common man, to reduce corruption and to increase transparency of governance.
  • This is a much-needed step inspired by the spirit of Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, which mandates governments to maintain computerised records and provide this information suo moto to the public, so that there is minimal need to file RTIs.
  • A recent NGO study of orders by the Central Information Commission in 2018 found that 70% of the original RTI applications requested information which should have been put out in the public domain already.
  • The public has a right to all the information the government collects about them.
  • People mostly needed data on their own entitlements: food, pensions, job guarantee, educational scholarships, labour welfare benefits, health insurance, treatment for occupational diseases such as silicosis, land rights, etc.,” he says. Bhambhu points out that many poor people had no way to track what happened if payments had been diverted to a different bank account or if forest rights applications had been rejected. In other words, they had no way of finding out what happened to payments if they could not access the databases and processes that form the backbone of a particular scheme or law.
  • The Jan Soochna portal is not about simply getting information for information’s sake. It must be built into a wider ecosystem of accountability.
  • Although the Jan Soochna portal was launched with much publicity, information about it is still to reach many people in Rajasthan. “No one outside our office has heard the name of this Jan Soochna. But it is a new scheme, it will take some time to become popular. Need to put out advertisements in papers and planning awareness programmes.
  • Infrastructural requirements – Data available with the government show that in one year, only 10 transactions have been made on this particular machine. Of the 14,440 machines (kiosks branded as e-mitra plus machines, which are meant to cut out the corrupt middleman and provide services and information directly to the user, which also host the Jan Soochna portal) installed across the State over a year ago, 914 have never been used. Lack of internet and of trained operators is an issue.
  • MKSS wants training on Jan Soochna usage to be imparted to front-line government workers at anganwadis and panchayats as well as grassroots social workers. Local databases need to be made visible offline as well, says Dey. “Specific data on ration beneficiaries should be painted on the walls of the ration shop itself, so it can be seen even by those who cannot go online,” he says.
  • Printouts of information from the Jan Soochna portal should automatically come with a digital signature, giving them the same legal validity as RTI responses.
  • The real success of the story will depend on how well the Rajasthan government can help empower the marginalised with the biggest tool at its disposal: information.
  • The Right to Information (Term of Office, Salaries, Allowances and Other Terms and Conditions of Service of Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission, State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners in the State Information Commission) Rules, 2019 notified by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions set the tenure of Information Commissioners at three years and gave the government the discretion to decide on “conditions of service” for which no express provisions are made in the rules. The Chief Information Commissioner’s salary has been fixed at ₹5 lakh and an Information Commissioner’s at ₹2.25 lakh.
  • Among new rules, the government has been given the “power to relax” their provisions, which raised “serious concerns that the government could potentially invoke these powers to determine different tenures for different Commissioners at the time of appointment”, she said.
  • “The policy requires all draft rules to be placed in the public domain for comments/suggestions of people. The draft was not available in the public domain and no consultations were held with members of the public,” the citizens’ group said in a statement.

Categories: POINT IAS

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