You have a right to know. You have the right to ask public authorities about information related to their organization, function and structure, their employees and officers' duties, and financial information. All it takes is an online application and ten rupees. The Act which makes this possible is the Right to Information Act, 2005. It commenced on October 12th, 2005, to ensure transparency in the working of public authorities.
Fifteen years later, here we are, with little to no information about how funds donated to the PM CARES Fund are being used. The Prime Minister's Office has refused to disclose information related to the fund's trust deed, exact details of donations, etc., asked for in various applications filed by journalists and RTI activists. In May, this information was blocked because the fund is "not a public authority." In August, information related to the number of RTI requests related to the fund was blocked because compiling the information "would disproportionately divert this office's resources from the efficient discharge of its normal functions."
The thing is, for all- well, most intents and purposes, PM CARES Fund is a "public authority." It was set up by the government. The PM is the ex-officio chairman of the fund. Donations made to the fund are eligible for tax deductions and qualify as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) (although contributions to state government funds do not qualify). The fund mobilizes donations from various government departments and staff salaries.
The only thing we know about the fund is that it has spent Rs 3,100 crores on ventilators, aid to migrants, and vaccine development.
This case is just the newest in the list of instances demonstrating an increasing opacity in public decision making and functioning.
In Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, India ranks 80th out of 180 countries, earning a 41/100, the same as China and Ghana. Interestingly, according to the Global RTI Rating, India ranks among the top ten countries in terms of the strength of its legal framework for the right to information. So, the laws are there. However, there is a clear gap between what is and what ought to be. Why do we still have to demand that transparency laws be implemented?
The pandemic has sent an already flailing system further into a downward spiral. When the lockdown in March and subsequent restrictions disrupted the hearings of Maharashtra Information Commission, it took a petition filed by a group of RTI activists in the Bombay High Court for the Maharashtra State Government to direct public authorities to conduct hearings over video conferencing. These measures weren't adopted until October.
Shouldn't this course of action have been taken proactively?
Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Maharashtra. Information Commissions all over the country have been slow to react to the problems the pandemic has introduced, on top of pre-existing issues. Despite their retirement being planned, officers who retired before and during the lockdown have yet to be replaced. Out of the 29 Information Commissions, 2- Jharkhand and Tripura are defunct due to lack of officers to staff them. 4 Commissions are functioning without a Chief Information Commissioner-Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
Further, the Act calls for a Public Information Officer's response within 30 days of submitting an application, but in reality, this is very rarely the case. According to Shailesh Gandhi, RTI activist and former Central Information Commissioner, both the government and Public Information Officers are realizing that there are no consequences for not complying with the Act. "In the worst case, the Commission may rule on disclosure. Though the Act does not permit any appeals beyond the Commission, these decisions are often challenged in courts by masquerading as writs."
RTI activists estimate that between 55-60 lakh RTI applications are made every year. Such a massive volume of requests needs the right machinery to be dealt with by filling vacancies and implementing efficient disclosure systems.
An efficient disclosure system would aim to reduce the number of requests for the same information by maintaining a database of previous RTIs and their responses. If we take a look at the websites of a few Ministries, how they disclose RTI responses varies widely. On some websites, applications and their answers are sorted by subject then compiled; in others, the database hasn't been updated since 2016. Disorganized information is as useful as no information.
Further, responding to RTI requests involves coordination across government departments, which is often hindered by poor record-keeping. Although public authorities are in the process of digitizing their records, with no deadline declared, each is doing so at their own pace. For instance, in a survey conducted amongst urban Public Information Officers, 25% cited poor records management as a critical constraint to the swift processing of RTI applications.
No matter how much citizens push, implementation of the RTI cannot improve without political will. Typically, once an act like RTI is instituted, the political momentum that drove it up to that point dissipates. After all, implementing it is considerably less glamourous than the passage phase.
Here's the situation in a nutshell: the government uses the provisions of the Act to suit its needs, citizens write petitions to the high court asking it to direct the government to follow the Act, fast forward 11 years later when the court finally declares a verdict, but the information is no longer relevant.
We have the right to information. But who cares to enforce it?
Illustrated by Amisha Thakre