Speaking at a public meeting, former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Madan Lokur said that the recent amendments to the Right to Information Act, 2005 were regressive and will have an impact on the functioning of the law.
The meeting was organized on October 16 by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), a citizens' group working to promote transparency and accountability in government functioning, to mark 14 years of the RTI Act.
In July 2019, the RTI Act was amended by Parliament. The amendments empower the central government to make rules regarding the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief and other information commissioners of the Central Information Commission (CIC) and all state information commissions (SICs). It has been more than 2 months since the amendments received the assent of the President on August 1, 2019. However, till date the central government has not promulgated rules.
Justice Lokur said that the RTI law will continue to suffer till the rules are made. He said the RTI Act has empowered people to seek information of importance to them and hold the government accountable and that information commissions are crucial to the functioning of the law.
As regards the implementation of the Act, he suggested a regime of video recording and broadcasting commission proceedings to ensure greater transparency and to gain public trust. He also suggested that the commissions must impose penalties for violations of the Act, to send a strong message to the public authorities.
He also discussed the key findings of the report titled "Report Card of Information Commissions in India 2018-19". This report, published by SNS, analyses the performance of all 29 information commissions set up under the RTI Act in terms of vacancies in the commissions, pendency of appeals/complaints, time taken by the commissions to dispose cases and frequency of penalties imposed.
Elaborating on the report, Anjali Bhardwaj of SNS detailed how governments across the country were trying to undermine the RTI Act by not appointing information commissioners.
She illustrated that in December 2018, CIC was functioning with merely 3 information commissioners while 8 posts, including that of the chief were vacant. Even presently, she exclaimed, 4 vacancies persisted in the commission while the pendency was rising every month and was currently more than 33,000.
She added that the information commission of Tripura had been completely defunct since May 2019, while the Andhra Pradesh SIC was not functional for 17 months (from May 2017 to October 2018). Furthermore, the SICs of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan were functioning without a Chief.
The gathering was also addressed by the CIC, Sudhir Bhargava, who expressed his pleasure on the manner RTI Act had empowered people by increasing accountability and said that the commission was committed to ensure that people are able to access information, especially those living at the margins. However, he also voiced his concerns over the time taken to dispose cases which had resulted in large backlog of appeals and complaints.
Many people who were present during the meeting also complained of prolonged proceedings before the commissions and shared their experiences illustrating how they had been waiting for a long time for the disposal of their appeals/complaints.
The issue of non-compliance with orders of the information commissions was also highlighted, and people informed that despite receiving progressive directions from the commission, government often did not comply with the orders.
One Ashish Ranjan, representing Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan, a registered trade union of unorganized sector workers which focuses on RTI and other issues relating to justice, discussed the issue of attacks and killings of RTI users and cited examples of murders of Rajender Singh and Dharmendra Yadav who were killed for exposing corruption.
The meeting was also attended and addressed by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, activists Harsh Mander and Shabnam Hashmi, and General Secretary of National Federation of Indian Women Annie Raja.
Notably, the Kerala High Court had issues notices on a plea last month, challenging the vires of the Amendment Act and contending that subjecting pay and allowances under executive control had taken away the independence and autonomy of the RTI authorities.