The RTI is virtually being strangled to death by deliberate delays in appointments.
If you find a law uncomfortable, even one that you supported and passed, what should you do? Repealing it would not be politically smart; amending or diluting it will give ammunition to your critics. So the best strategy is to strangulate it, softly and steadily, until it is rendered lifeless and ineffectual. Something like this is happening to the Right to Information (RTI) Act under the current government.
Passed with much fanfare in 2005, the RTI Act was path-breaking and considered a major step forward in encouraging transparency in governance. It was exceptional also because it came about as a response to demands from the ground, from civil society groups that had demonstrated the importance of such a law in a democracy. The law was premised on the belief that citizens have the right to know how governments and their agencies function, to access data on government programmes and to know how or why decisions are taken, or not taken. The response to legitimate queries from the public had to come within a time frame, as unnecessary delays would undermine faith in such a law.
From the start, it was evident that the implementation of the law would not be simple or easy. Much depended on the quality and commitment of the men and women tasked to take it forward. These included not just the chief information commissioners (CIC), at the centre and in the states, but the information commissioners and other personnel who handled the queries. For the law to really work, the general public had to be aware, the staff handling petitions had to be well trained and records had to be properly maintained. On all three counts, there were shortcomings. Despite this, each year saw an increase in the number of petitions filed under the RTI Act, suggesting that faith in the law was growing.
Yet, even as an increasing number of people turned to the RTI for information, it was clear that for people in power, the law was an irritant. Hence, even though the former United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government initiated the law, its members, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, were wont to make negative statements about it and government agencies dragged their feet as much as possible in responding to queries. The UPA also tried twice to dilute provisions in the law but backed down in the face of strong protests from citizen groups.
The Modi government is following a more devious strategy. It is not openly questioning the law, drafting amendments or finding other ways to dilute the actual provisions of the law; it is killing it through simple neglect. Hence, since August 2014, no one has been appointed to the post of CIC. Three posts for information commissioners also continue to lie vacant. This might not appear to be so important. Yet, as former CIC Shailesh Gandhi pointed out in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by delaying these appointments the government was rendering the law “dysfunctional.”
Explaining how this happens, Gandhi points out that certain levels of queries can only be dealt with by the CIC. With no one occupying that chair, all such queries are put on hold, creating a backlog. The absence of the full quota of information commissioners further adds to the backlog. According to Gandhi, each commissioner should be able to clear at least 6,000 cases every year to prevent a backlog from building up. While in 2011, six commissioners were able to clear 22,351 cases between them, in 2014, seven commissioners cleared only 16,006 cases. Even if these positions are filled tomorrow, there will still be a backlog of 38,000 cases.
It is delay that erodes faith in the efficacy of the law. When an individual files a query under the RTI Act, under provisions of the law the response should come within 30 days extendable to 45 days. But if the process takes years, as do cases in judicial courts, petitioners gradually tire of the process and give up. So delaying appointments is not accidental or incidental; it is deliberate.
As the Modi government completes its first year in office, it is noteworthy how many appointments and positions remain vacant. Apart from the CIC, other vacancies include the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), the Lok Pal as well as heads of innumerable academic institutions. The post of the CVC was created in the 1960s to curtail corruption in government. Despite not living up to its full promise, the CVC has been an important check on financial malpractices. The present government likes to claim that it has kept corruption down, yet it has followed a deliberate policy of weakening the very institutions which keep an eye on official acts of omission and commission.
Why has it taken the government so long to find competent people to fill these positions? Or is it, as most believe, that patronage and ideological leanings score over competence? From the few appointments that have been made, it is clear that the chosen few are above all either loyal to the ideology of the Sangh Parivar or are loyal to Modi (note the preference for bureaucrats from the Gujarat cadre who have worked under him). Furthermore, while the institutional need to fill these positions is fairly urgent, the long-term ideological vision of the government compels it to take its time to find what it considers the “right” person. In the process, important rights—like that to information—and important institutions crucial to the system of checks and balances in the executive are being bled to death.