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RTI delays: Information officers are the problem

Last year, RTI activist Pradeep Pradhan filed an application with the Odisha police commissionerate seeking information on sponsorships given to the commissionerate through industrial houses.

He was told to submit a sum of more than Rs 14000, as the amount to be given to the staff who would gather the information. Pradhan then moved the Odisha state information commission (SIC) arguing that a public authority demanding a fee was in violation of the transparency act.

The SIC ruled that he should be given the information in 20 days free of cost, but Pradhan says he is yet to get complete information with regards to his query. Meanwhile the SIC has told him that it will not reopen the case, and asked him to move the High Court instead. It also did not penalize the public information officer (PIO), as demanded by Pradhan.

The RTI still faces many obstacles

In March 2011, Ethoi Begum sought information on rural schemes in Manipur’s Thoubal district. On not getting any response, she moved the Manipur SIC which is yet to provide her with any information.

Geeta Potsangbam of Macha Leima, a Manipur based NGO, has a similar tale to tell. "Three hundred of our RTI applications reached the SIC in the last two years, but only ten were disposed of,” said .

As the RTI act completes seven years, the functioning and ‘attitude’ of information commissions has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks between information and concerned citizens.

They have been casting many obstacles in the path of RTI applicants, such as interrogating them to find out the reason behind them filing applications. In addition to this, an increasing pendency and lack of infrastructure are also cripple the information commissions in India.

“One of the biggest challenges is how to make information commissions people friendly,” said Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Right Initiative, an NGO working for the transparency Act. He said that Non compliance of SCI orders, is a common practice across states.

To resolve the issue, Nayak says, “Commissions should not close the case until the applicant has got the complete information. They should strictly impose penalties on PIOs who do not comply with its orders. There should be fast track of such cases.”

The Central Information Commission (CIC) is yet to hear more than 27000 cases registered with it. The Rajasthan SIC for instance, has a pendency of above 9500 cases. At the end of 2011, Odiha SIC had more than 8000 pending cases.

According to a recent Supreme Court order, each information commission should comprise a two member bench, including one judicial member. “We are already facing an appalling condition. The Supreme Court order will make matters worse. With two members deciding each case, the productivity of each commission will be reduced to 25 per cent,” said Shailesh Ganhdi, former central information commissioner.

During his stint in the CIC, Gandhi said he conducted a study of CIC orders given over a four-month period. “I found that only in 15 cent of the cases, you need legal interpretation. Therefore, there is no need to have judicial members in information commissions,” said he.

It does not help that different SICs follow different practices. The Odisha SCI, for example, hears cases only for two hours daily. Then the Rajasthan SIC did not function for five months in the absence of a chief information commissioner. "This time it has stopped hearing cases after the Supreme Court judgment which mandates two members judge for each commission", said Kamal, an RTI activist from Rajasthan.

According to RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, power given to states and competent authorities to formulate rules to implement the RTI Act, should be repealed. “States are misusing these rules by charging random and sometimes exceptionally high application fee,’ he said.