To highlight concerns about the subversion of the Right To Information Act, former Supreme Court judge Justice MB Lokur cited the instance of lack of information about the funds in the PM CARES Funds.
"How there is no information out in the public domain about how crores and crores of money that has been donated by average citizens and big business is being spent?", he said.
He said that we don't know where money deposited in PM CARES Fund is going.
"Lets take another example, PM-CARES Fund. It too has crores of rupees. We know government employees have donated money. CSR has been diverted towards PM-CARES. But how much money is there under the Fund? We don't know. How has it been spent? We don't know. We were told that it would be utilised for tackling COVID, buying ventilators. What actually has happened? We don't know", he said.
"If you go to PM-CARES website, you'll see that on there's an audit report for the period 28-03-2020 to 31-3-2020. It says that in 4 days 3000 crores were collected...if you calculate by taking that average we are talking about of hundreds and thousands of crores! But where is this money going? We don't know", he added.
"The audit report for the period 2020-2021 hasn't been prepared yet", Justice Lokur said.
"One year has passed, today is the 12th of October nobody has any clue about the audit reports", he added.
It may be recalled that the Prime Minister's Office has rejected RTI applications seeking information about the PM CARES Funds, which was created as a charitable trust to deal with COVID emergency, stating that it was not a "public authority" within the meaning of the RTI Act. The Delhi High Court in currently hearing petitions seeking public disclosure of information about PM CARES.
Retd. Justice Madan B.Lokur made the above observations while delivering a public lecture on RTI Act at an event organized by the National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information (NCPRI) to mark 16 years of the implementation of the landmark Right to Information Act in India.
Starting off his lecture with a quote by the Nobel Peace Prize awardee Journalist Maria Resse-"Without facts you cannot have truth, without truth you cannot have trust and without any of these things you cannot have democracy"-Justice Lokur in his lecture shared his thoughts on the various ways in which the Right to Information Act, 2005 is being subverted, the future of the Right to Information movement and the role of common citizens in it.
Before dealing with the specific of the RTI Act, Justice Lokur talked about the importance of information being made freely available. "Information is vital for the functioning of a democratic republic. The idea is to have good governance, transparency and accountability."
Talking about S.4 of the RTI Act which deals with proactive disclosure of information by the government, he expressed his belief that "we shouldn't have to ask the government for information. Under S.4 of the RTI Act the government should provide information themselves."
Talking about specific incidents where the lack of information affected the average citizens, he referred to the COVID-19 pandemic and said: "In spite of acknowledging that there has been a problem in the handling of COVID-19 pandemic there is no information or record of how many people of died due to COVID or due to lack of oxygen, etc…..this kind of information is necessary to know how to plan for the future."
At the beginning of the year it was claimed that the battle over COVID-19 has been won and yet within months lakhs and lakhs were dying, he pointed out. Making a reference to Maria Resse again, he asked the audience: "This is what Maria Resse said about trust. Can you trust the information being given?"
Referring to the distressing image of migrants travelled barefoot after the COVID-19 induced lockdown, Justice Lokur quipped "When asked by the Supreme Court it was claimed that there is no information on the number of people who had to migrate!"
"This is with respect to information which is claimed not to be available, but even in instances where information which is available it is not shared with the public." Elaborating further Justice Lokur took the example of Electoral Funds and said- "information which is available like with respect to Electoral Bonds like who is donating how much can be sought by the government from banks but it is not being shared.
Elaborating his point further he took to example of PM-CARES Fund and wondered how there is no information out in the public domain about how crores and crores of money that has been donated by average citizens and big business is being spent.
Coming to the issue of applicability of RTI Act to certain entities, he focussed on the issue of political parties. Justice Lokur pointed out that a Central Information Commission order dated 2013 had held that political parties fall within the ambit of RTI Act as they are 'public authorities' under S.2(h) of the RTI Act. "8 years have passed yet not a single party is in compliance with CIC's order and RTI Act!"- he exclaimed.
Justice Lokur referred to the report brought about by Satark Nagrik Sangathan titled 'Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2021' on the performance of information commissions across the country based on information accessed under the RTI Act. The highlighted findings of the report on the number of vacancies across State and Central Information Commissions, number of pending cases and estimated waiting time for the disposal of an appeal/complaint filed in each commission. All this, Justice Lokur explained, despite a 2019 judgment of the Supreme Court in Anjali Bhardwaj vs Union of India laying down that vacancies be filled up within 6 months and that the selection process by in a transparent and non-arbitrary manner.
"RTI Act is being subverted by information not being collected, not being shared, appointments not being made, persons not applying are getting selected and appeals being kept pending."
However, not to sound too pessimistic about the future of the Right to Information movement, Justice Lokur opined that "Not everything is so bleak though...Rajasthan has a Jan Soocha portal where information is available freely for all. I have been told that some other states are going to launch their own Jan Soochna portals. Rajasthan has taken the lead hopefully other states will follow."
"I hope this is the start of positive change where the information is provided freely by the government and people don't have to go around asking for information" he said concluding his lecture.