New Delhi,March 11: While all eyes were fixed on the fate of the previous regime’s big-ticket Land Acquisition Act, a silent process is underway to undercut another of its flagship legislation – the Right to Information Act. RTI activists across the country protest that this tool of accountability has broken down under the Modi dispensation as eliciting information from the government has become nearly impossible.
“The single biggest indicator of the Act getting strangled is the state of the Central Information Commission,” said Venkatesh Nayak of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. “The commission has been working without a chief for more than six months. The posts of three information commissioners have also been vacant for long, yet the government is simply silent.”
The Central Information Commission is the top agency entrusted with the implementation of the Right to Information Act. Its last chief, Rajiv Mathur, completed his tenure on August 22 2014, but the post has been vacant since. Also, against the sanctioned strength of 10, it has only seven information commissioners (Vijai Sharma, Basant Seth, Yashovardhan Azad, Sharat Sabharwal, Majula Prasher, MA Khan Yusufi and Prof MS Acharyulu).
That the RTI Act is losing its edge is visible in the increase in the pending complaints and second appeals with the Central Information Commission after the Modi government was formed. According to Nayak, there are 39,000 pending cases with the CIC, up from 24,150 on October 31 last year.
“Because of top level vacancies at the CIC, officials have developed a tendency to withhold information and force RTI applicants to go for an appeal knowing well that they won’t be able to get anything out of that,” said Mumbai-based RTI activist Bhaskar Prabhu. “The present government is saying that it is transparent, but in practice it is not.”
The smothering of the RTI Act is evidenced also by the fact that the Whistleblower’s Protection Act, which was passed in February 2014 and which received the president’s nod on May 9, is yet to be operationalised because the Modi government has failed to frame the rules necessary for its implementation. Worse still, instead of operationalising this legislation, the government is contemplating limiting its scope on grounds of protecting national security, officials say.
RTI activists working in different parts of the country – Venkatesh Nayak in Delhi, Bhaskar Prabhu in Mumbai, Salim Baig in Uttar Pradesh, Girish Gupta and Shailendra Singh Tarkar in Bihar and SQ Masood and Ramakrishna Raju in Hyderabad – told Newsatclick.in that there has been a general decay in the atmosphere to provide information after the regime change at the Centre.
All of them complained that they are unable to get from the authorities any information that goes beyond what is already available on the websites of ministries and departments.
They further asserted that dodging RTI requests have become a norm among officials, the timeline mandatory for providing information is hardly being followed, and that there is no instance of an official being punished for a delay in providing information.
“The Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet have become completely opaque,” Nayak remarked. “On January 5, I asked for the Cabinet note attached to the land acquisition ordinance that was sent for presidential assent. More than 40 days have passed and I have not received any information till date.” Nayak cited this case as an instance of the apathy towards RTI at the top echelons of the government. All other RTI activists narrated similar experiences.
Unfortunately, the legislation is being crushed at a time when the right is getting exercised in the country more than anywhere else. According to Nayak, around 4.5 million RTI requests are being generated every year in India, whereas “in the US, this figure stands between 3 and 3.5 million”.