Evaluating use of right to information in India

Published : 15 Mar 2022 08:54 PM

The Indian Central Information Commission (CIC) Annual Report (AR) for the year 2020-21 has just been published. Venkatesh Nayak, Indian Right to Information activist has drawn attention to several interesting elements that have surfaced through this Report.

Prepared in accordance with the mandate under Section 25 of the Indian RTI Act, introduced in 2005, the Report has carefully referred to different dimensions revealed through statistics with regard to the receipt and disposal of RTI applications, first appeals and second appeals across Central level Public authorities during the reporting year.

Nayak, a recognized analyst, has pointed out that the Report indicates that 2,182 of the 2,275 Central level public authorities registered with the CIC have submitted their RTI statistics for preparing the latest Annual Report (AR). This may be denoted as 95.91% compliance. In this regard it has also been interestingly pointed out that while the number of registered public authorities in India has increased by 82 over the figure of 2019-20, this figure is much lesser than the 2,333 public authorities who had registered with the CIC in 2012-13. Similarly, there is another aspect which has drawn attention. Apparently, according to the RTI Online Facility set up for electronic submission of RTI applications, there are 2,464 public authorities at the Central level. This indicates that despite 16 years of implementation of the RTI Act in India, all public authorities are still not dutifully registering themselves with the CIC for filing RTI-related returns and even among those registered; 200-280 do not comply with the reporting requirement.

However, the Indian CIC-AR has to be understood against the fact that the 2020-21 AR of the CIC is the first one which spans an entire year of the pandemic which has seen lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the pandemic and urged institutions to also consider carrying out their work from home. This arrangement might have affected the performance of hundreds of public authorities that were not at the frontline of the containment exercise.

Nevertheless, interestingly, according to the AR 13.33 million RTI applications were received across the reporting public authorities in 2020-21, which was about 2.95% fewer RTIs than the 2019-20 figure. It appears that there was only a marginal decline in the number of RTIs filed during the first year of the pandemic as compared with the previous year which recorded the highest number of RTIs filed with Central public authorities ever- since the enforcement in 2005. It may be mentioned that the total figures presented in the AR include the RTI application statistics from the Union Territories (UTs) administration as well. From this it appears that the reduction in the number of RTIs filed in 2020-21 was not very significant and that the pandemic did not prove to be a great dampener. Instead, it indicated that the common people have continued to seek information from various Ministries much like before.

Interestingly, however the biggest fall in the number of RTI applications received during the pandemic year was reported by the Ministry of Finance (including banks, insurance companies and other finance and tax related public authorities) with 21,657 fewer RTI applications coming its way in 2020-21 followed by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs reporting a shortfall of 20,269 RTI applications as compared with the 2019-20 figure. Other Ministries with such a shortfall of more than 1,000 RTI applications during the pandemic year were: Ministry of Road Transport (17,986), Ministry of Railways (17,972), Ministry of Human Resource Development (8,711) and the Ministry of Defence (5,812). Delhi Police also reported a shortfall of 5,812 RTI applications in 2020-21. Some other Ministries and Departments which received at least 1,000 fewer RTI applications included the Indian Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (3,364), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (2,687), Ministry of Culture (2,355), Ministry of Environment and Forests (1,887), Department of Space (1,550), Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (1,274), Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (1,230).

Nayak, in this regard has also pertinently pointed out that the the Supreme Court received 1,011 fewer RTI applications in 2020-21 as compared with the previous year. Similarly, the Prime Minister’s Office’s 2020-21 total was 552 less than the previous year. India’s Rashtrapati Bhawan also received 461 fewer RTI requests during the pandemic year.

However, while there has been a downward trend in the number of RTI applications filed in 2020-21 some Indian Ministries and Departments have reported a rising trend compared with 2019-20. For example, MoHFW reported a 79.09% increase in RTIs during the pandemic year (60,423) as compared to that in 2019-20 (33,738 RTIs). The Ministry of Steel also reported an increase of 149.40% and the Ministry of Textiles- 54.64%. Other Ministries and public authorities which reported  increase in RTIs during the pandemic year were: the Ministry of External Affairs (48.11%), Ministry of Labour and Employment (46.90%), Ministry of Rural Development (41.18%), Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (39.61%), Ministry of Civil Aviation (33.94%), Ministry of Home Affairs (33.37%), Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (13.95%),  Ministry of Women and Child Development (10.90%), Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (10.30%), Ministry of Law and Justice (5.67%), Ministry of Coal (3.09%), Ministry of Power (2.41%), Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (2.40%), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (2.12%), and the Ministry of Science and Technology (2.01%).  Some other institutions who have reported an increase in RTI applications were the Delhi High Court at 42.97%, Indian Air Force at 40.70% and the Cabinet Secretariat at 2.65% as compared with 2019-20. This has indeed been remarkable.

It would be interesting at this point to also identify that there is a continuing trend of backlog in processing RTI applications. Nayak has pointed out that the AR indicates that 3.48 lakh RTI applications have been pending from 2019-20 at the beginning of the pandemic year i.e., 2020-21. This is 12.35% higher than the backlog figure of 310,110 reported in 2019-20 pending from 2018-19. The Ministry of Defence has reported the highest backlog of all with 119,474 RTIs pending at the start of the pandemic year. 

The Indian Army accounted for the bulk of this backlog with 107,601 RTIs pending from 2019-20 at the start of the pandemic year. Interestingly, Nayak has observed that a similar figure is mentioned for the backlog for the previous year pending from 2018-29 raising doubts as to whether or not the 2020-21 figures is accurate. Next, in terms of backlog has been the Ministry of Human Resource Development which has accounted for 62,682 pending RTIs in 2020-21 much higher than the figure of 50,887 reported for 2019-20. After that comes the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs which has accounted for 35,626 pending RTIs in 2020-21 as compared with a much lower figure of 28,515 during the previous year and the Ministry of Labour and Employment which occupies the fourth place with a backlog of 9,790 RTI applications in 2020-21 as compared with a much lower figure of 6,355 in 2019-20. As expected at fifth place is the Ministry of Road Transport which has reported a pendency of 7,282 RTIs at the start of the pandemic year as compared with 5,850 RTIs pending at the start of the previous year.

This aspect of pendency however appears to have been tackled very carefully by the Ministry of Railways. With only 5,443 pending RTIs, the Ministry of Railways has reduced its pendency by almost three fourths in 2020-21 as compared to 13,193 pending RTIs at the start of the previous year. Similarly, the Ministry of Communications reported 4,972 pending RTIs at the start of 2020-21- much lower than 5,628 RTI applications which were reported pending at the start of 2019-20.

As an analyst, Nayak and some others who have scrutinized the CIC-AR in the web portal, have also drawn attention to another sensitive issue- the discrepancy between the number of RTI applications clocked and the amount of applications fees collected during the pandemic year. Such a scenario, it has been suggested, might have been due to the transfer of RTI applications between public authorities where every public authority which receives an RTI application by way of transfer under Section 6(3) of the Indian RTI Act considers this as a fresh application and adds it to its total. 

In other words, the same RTI application might be accounted for multiple times depending on how many times it was transferred between public authorities. An additional factor might have also been the double counting of RTI applications which are forwarded by one CPIO to another within the same public authority as is common practice. If this is true then the total number of RTI applications filed uniquely i.e., after deducting the number of times they were transferred or forwarded might be much lower than the total figure reported in the AR. This dynamic needs to be carefully scrutinized by the relevant authorities.

One can only hope that our own Information Commission and also those in some other South Asian countries will carefully read the aforesaid Indian report and ascertain for themselves if they are functioning with necessary care in the analysis that will be required before they publish their next Annual Report. 

They could afterwards take the initiative to initiate inter-active engagement for a more constructive future.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance