Around 2.2 lakh plus cases are pending at the Central and State Information Commissions, fifteen years after the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Most Commissions are functioning at reduced capacity, including the Central Information Commission (CIC) which has been headless since August exacerbating the increasing backlog.
Marking the anniversary on Monday, the Satark Nagrik Sangathan and the Centre for Equity Studies brought out a report card that found that Maharashtra had the highest number of pending appeals, with over 59,000 cases, followed by Uttar Pradesh (47,923) and the CIC (35,653).
The report also found that at the current disposal rate, the Odisha Commission would take more than seven years to dispose of all pending complaints, while the CIC would take more than two years.
The CIC is functioning only with five commissioners and have no chief. Odisha is functioning with at least four commissioners, while Rajasthan has just three. Jharkhand and Tripura have been defunct for months as there are no commissioners at all.
RTI strictly states that every commission should have a chief and up to 10 commissioners.
According to the analysis the government officials barely punish for violating the law. Despite previous analysis showing a rate of about 59% violations which should have triggered the process of penalty imposition, the report found after analyzing the data from 16 commissions in 2019-20, penalties were imposed in only 2.2% of cases that were disposed of.
“Non-imposition of penalties in deserving cases by commissions sends a signal to public authorities that violating the law will not invite any serious consequences. This destroys the basic framework of incentives built into the RTI law and promotes a culture of impunity, ” The report stated.
The show cause notices were issued in more than 15,700 cases, and penalties imposed in 1,995 cases, out of almost 90,000 cases disposed of by the 16 commissions between April 2019 to July 2020. Gujarat accounted for more than 9,000 show cause notices, but only 163 penalties. Overall, fines imposed amounted to ₹2.53 crore.
Noting that relief and welfare programmes funded through public money are the sole lifeline for millions who have suddenly lost income-earning opportunities after the lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of the disease, the report said, “the need to scrutinize the functioning of information commissions now is perhaps greater than ever before, given the unprecedented crisis gripping the nation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The report also noted if the poor and marginalized affected by the public health emergency are to have any hope of obtaining the benefits of government schemes, they must have access to relevant information.
“At a time when incentives for secrecy are great, and the scope for discretionary actions wide, the role of information commissions is crucial to ensure that people can obtain information on healthcare facilities, social security programs and delivery of essential goods and services meant for those in distress,” the report underlined.