It is now 12 years since the Right to Information (RTI) Act came into force, to make transparency an essential element of public discourse. However, instead of growing stronger and more citizen friendly due to the powerful provisions of Section 4 disclosures, transparency in increasingly coming under a threat. Accessing even basic information that should be ideally and pro-actively be uploaded in the public domain by the public authorities under the Act, is getting tougher by the day.
It seems as if the public information officers (PIOs) and appellate authorities are getting bolder and bolder to deny or give out only a portion of the information that is convenient to them, thus compelling citizens to file a second appeal with the Information commissioners. And here too, pendencies are only piling up, thanks to vacancies of Central Information Commissioner (CIC) posts that are not being filled up for months on end, for which a petition has been recently lodged in the Supreme Court. But that is another story.
Even well-known RTI activists are being stone-walled for seeking simple information, so one can imagine the plight of ordinary citizens. Recently, former CIC and RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, filed an application with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). He asked this simple information: “During the last five years, what is the total number of fresh passports issued; total revenues earned from issuing these passports and; and total amount paid to private contractors in this period.’’
Shockingly, the PIO of MEA replied that the government does not keep such information! The PIO’s reply on 15 June 2018 states: “the sought information is not maintained by the public authority. Also, as per Section 7 (9) of the RTI Act, 2005, an information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would be disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.”
Mr Gandhi was not even asking for the names of passport holders or any other personal information. Information sought on the public-private partnerships falls under the RTI Act and details sought by Gandhi are clearly information retrievable under Section 4.
What could be the reason for the denial of such basic information? Mr Gandhi says, “This appears to show that either all pretense of respecting the RTI Act is being given up. Or else, there is something very fishy which might be exposed like multiple passports being given to some people or more payment being made to contractors compared with revenues. It is absurd to believe that this information would not be available.”
Similarly, Commodore Lokesh Batra, also a well-acclaimed RTI activist based in Delhi, was stonewalled for seeking information about foreign tours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At various public authorities as his RTI application went round and round, after he applied in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) seeking details of the PM’s foreign tours. The information he sought included foreign visits undertaken by PM Modi, the Indian Air Force (IAF) aircrafts used by him and also the expenditure incurred over these visits for the period from 26 May 2014.
While Cmde Batra was given information about the countries visited by the PM (which is cool to part with), the CPIO replied that information on other two points was not available. Also, since Cmde Batra’s RTI application was forwarded to other departments like Airforce HQ and then the Ministry of Defence, it took seven months to deny him information. He had filed a second appeal.
While CIC Divya Prakash Sinha directed the PIOs to supply this information to Cmde Batra, here is how the inordinate delay by the PIO and AA was condoned. The order states: “…nonetheless, from the facts and circumstances of the instant case, the Commission does not find any malafide intention on the part of the Respondents in having delayed the provision of a reply and in having provided inappropriate information…In the absence of any material on record to prove that the transfer letter was deliberately delayed or was misplaced, the Commission does not find any reason to initiate action against either of the Respondents. Similarly, the fact that appropriate information has not been provided by the Respondents is attributed to the gross lack of knowledge or perhaps limited knowledge of the process of debit on account of various expenditure components of foreign visits of the Hon’ble PM.”
And shockingly, the CIC actually states in his order that “the Complainant (Batra) has not explained as to what detriment has been suffered by him due to the non-provision of information regarding the total expenditure incurred from foreign visits of Hon’ble PM within the stipulated time frame.”
This, when the RTI Act clearly states that you cannot question the citizen on why he is invoking RTI!
Last week, well-known RTI research scholar and coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Venkatesh Nayak was denied information by the Reserve Bank of India (RB) regarding information on minutes of the meeting held before the announcement of demonetisation. The RBI denied information quoting Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act. This section allows denial of information that “would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relations with a foreign state or lead to incitement of an offence.”
Mr Nayak told PTI that, “While confidentiality prior to the making of the demonetisation decision is understandable, continued secrecy after the decision is implemented is difficult to understand when crores of Indians have faced difficulties due to the shortage of cash in the economy.”
RBI has also mentioned in a reply to another RTI applicant that revelation of such information could be life threatening to certain individuals. Scores of RTI applications regarding details of decision of demonetisation and other dimensions of it are regularly rejected.
Thus, besides the central government threatening to amend and dilute the RTI Act, public information officers, appellate authorities and sometimes even the information commissioner are playing a large role in nullifying our powerful transparency law, by denial of information or being lenient to the PIOs and AAs. Does this signal a bleak picture for this citizen-friendly law.