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Status of the Right to Information Act

Context: According to some activists, the Right to Information Act, 2005, that aided citizens in accessing non-public information is becoming less effective.

About the Right to Information

  • The Right to Information (RTI) is a legal framework that grants citizens the right to access information held by government and public authorities.
  • It allows individuals to request and receive information about government activities, decisions, and policies, promoting transparency and accountability in government functioning.
  • Right to Information is considered as 5th pillar of democracy.
  • Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone for all freedoms to which UN is consecrated – UNGA resolution 1946.
  • In the case of State of U.P. v. Raj Narain (1975), the supreme court recognized the right to information as an integral part of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Need for Right to Information

  • Citizen Engagement: RTI enables informed citizen participation in government planning and decision-making, reducing project costs while enhancing outcomes.
  • Transparency: It ensures transparency in government actions, curbing misuse of public funds and holding officials accountable.
  • Limiting Discretion: RTI prevents abuse of discretionary powers, promoting fairness in government operations.
  • Accountability: It empowers citizens to hold authorities accountable, reducing the burden on elected representatives.
  • Media Effectiveness: RTI strengthens media’s role in informing the public and promoting government accountability.

About the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005

About the Act
  • This law was enacted by Parliament on June 15, 2005, and went into effect on October 12, 2005.
  • Subject to the provisions of this Act, all citizens have the right to information. Public authorities are required to disclose information.
  • The basic objective of the act was to increase the transparency and increase the accountability of the government offices.
  • Background:
    • In India, the Right to Information (RTI) movement was launched at the grassroots level in the 1990s by an organisation called the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan.
    • Later, the movement captured country-wide attention and support.
    • The Government-appointed Working Group in 1997 was known as the “Shourie Committee”.
    • In July 2000, the Shourie draft was revived with significant amendments and introduced as the Freedom of Information Bill, 2000.
    • In 2002, the Freedom of Information Act was passed, later superseded by the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005.
Salient features of the RTA Act, 2005
  • Applicable to government at all levels: Central, state, local and bodies owned, controlled or substantially financed by government, including NGOs.
  • Suo moto declaration: Every public authority should provide possible Suo moto information to the public at regular intervals. Disclosure is the norm secrecy is exception.
  • Rights and obligations under the act:
    • Constitution of CIC (Central Information Commission), SICs (State Information Commissions), Information Officers and Appellate authorities.
    • Suo moto declaration under Section 4.
    • Modernizing record keeping.
    • Capacity building and awareness generation.
    • Creation of monitoring mechanism.
  • Three levels for attaining information: Public information officer (PIO) followed by First Appellate Authority followed by CIC (2nd Appellate Authority).
  • Fixed timelines to provide information:
    • PIOs have to provide information within 30 days in normal cases, 48 hours if it is a matter of life or liberty of a person.
    • First appellate authority within 30 days (45 days in exceptional cases- reason to be given in writing) from the date of filing appeal.
    • SIC/CIC – No time limit for disposal.
  • Information asked: Citizens can ask anything that the government can disclosure to the parliament.
  • Penalty: imposition of penalty for refusal to provide information.
  • Official Secrets Act: Explicitly overridden by RTI and other laws to the extent of inconsistency.
  • Exemptions: Section 8(1) – National security, sovereignty, national eco interest, relation with foreign states, cabinet and other decision-making documents, trade secrets, personal privacy, law enforcement etc.
  • Exclusion: Does not extend to intelligence and security agencies. However, info pertaining to allegations of corruption or human right violations will not be excluded.
  • Disclosure: All categories of exempted info to be disclosed after 20 years with certain exceptions.
  • Political parties: CIC in its 2013 decision has ascertained that Political Parties are also Public Authorities because they fulfil the criteria defined in the RTI Act for a body to be declared as public authority and thus, have now come under RTI.

The RTI (Amendment) Act, 2019

Status of the Right to Information Act_4.1

Impact of the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023 on the RTI Act, 2005

  • Exemption of Personal Information: The new data protection law changes a provision in the RTI Act to exempt “personal information” from being disclosed.
    • The RTI Act prohibits the personal data disclosure of citizens by the government, unless there is an overriding public interest in doing so.
    • Now, the new law introduces a blanket ban on personal information, making it difficult to access information even if it relates to public activities or larger public interest.
  • Impact on Transparency: Activists and experts are concerned that this change will reduce transparency and hinder the ability to access information.
    • Critics argued that it would make ‘social audits’ in ration distribution impossible to carry out.
    • In social audits, a community member gets a list of ration beneficiaries through an RTI request, and individually verifies that the beneficiaries got what they appear to have received on paper.
  • Evasion of Accountability: There are also concerns that powerful public officials would evade accountability by invoking this blanket ban on disclosing personal information.
  • Increased Denials: Officials are expected to deny more RTI requests using the personal information exemption, affecting the availability of crucial information.

Other Concerns with the RTI Act, 2005

  • Implementation Issues: The RTI Act’s effectiveness depends on the implementation of subordinate rules by both Union and State Governments. Variations in the interpretation and implementation of these rules have created inconsistencies and challenges in accessing information.
  • Unilateral Power to the Union Government: The Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019, gave the Union Government unilateral power in deciding the tenure and salaries of information commissioners. This has raised concerns about potential political interference and compromised independence.
  • Poor Quality of Information: Due to lack of infrastructure and adequate processes to comply with the RTI Act, the quality of information provided is very low. The information provided is either incomplete or lacks the substantial data.
  • Low Public Awareness: There is a lack of awareness among the general public about their rights and duties under the RTI Act.
  • Payment Methods: The choice of payment methods for filing RTI applications is left to the States, resulting in disparities in accessibility.
    • Some states do not accept common and convenient payment methods like Indian Postal Orders (IPOs), making the process burdensome for citizens.
  • Staffing Issues: Information commissions, such as the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs), have faced delays and staffing issues, leading to prolonged waiting times for appeal hearings.
  • Online RTI Accessibility: While online RTI filing can simplify the process, not all states have online RTI portals, and not all government bodies are registered on them.
  • Issue of Enforceability: The Act does not give adequate authority to the Information Commissions to enforce their decisions.
    • Information commissions can give directions to public authorities to take the steps necessary to comply with the Act, but are not empowered to take any action if such directions are ignored.
  • Secrecy: The free flow of information in India remains severely restricted by the legislative framework including several pieces of restrictive legislation, such as the Official Secrets Act, 1923.

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