In 2015, activist Lokesh Batra filed a Right to Information (RTI) application with the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) seeking details about the appointment of the next chief information commissioner (CIC). But the DoPT refused to share the information, saying that the process of appointment was still on and the information was part of “cabinet papers,” which are exempted from disclosure. “I had in the past too filed RTIs seeking information on the appointment of the CIC and had never been refused before,” says Batra. The information was finally given to Batra after he put in an appeal.
Batra’s RTI had followed protests and a public interest litigation (PIL) by activists in 2014-15 after the post of Chief Information Commissioner was kept vacant for a long time. “The fact that a government allows the Information Commission to go headless for so long is itself an indication that the government is not very serious about making sure that people are able to access their right to information,” says activist Anjali Bhardwaj.
The RTI Act was passed in 2005 and has in the past helped uncover some big scams, such as the Adarsh Housing Scam in Mumbai – where houses meant for war widows and veterans were given to politicians and bureaucrats – irregularities in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2G scam. It has also been used extensively by people as a means to access their basic rights and entitlements. “About six to eight million RTI applications are filed in the country every year,” says activist Nikhil Dey.
Bhardwaj agrees. “Our research has shown that the poorest and the most marginalised are the primary users of the RTI,” she says. “There is very poor grievance redress mechanism in our country. If someone complains that he or she is not getting ration, pension, or any other basic right and entitlement, nothing happens. In such a situation people have found it useful to file an RTI application.”
A Worrying Change
But earlier this year the government proposed some changes to the RTI rules, which have caused concern to activists. Once passed, the RTI Rules 2017 will replace the RTI Rules 2012. The proposed rules were put out on the DoPT website for comments from the public.
There are two particularly worrying changes. The first is the provision that proceedings pending before the commission shall abate on the death of the appellant. The second is that the commission may allow an appellant to withdraw an appeal if the matter has not been finally heard or a decision or order not been pronounced by the commission.
Activists feel both these rules make RTI users vulnerable to threats and attacks. “We are using the RTI because there are things we would want to expose. The minute you say you can withdraw, the guy who is affected will be at your throat,” says Dey. Dey himself was threatened by the sarpanch of a village, when he and a few others had gone to him to seek information regarding irregularities in development work. The incident took place in 1998, even before the RTI Act had been passed. The sarpanch and his family members not only roughed up and threatened Dey and his companions, but also lodged a false case against them, accusing them of assault. Ironically, a Munsif Magistrate last month sentenced Dey and his four co-accused to four months in prison in the 19-year-old case. The five have appealed against the conviction. But as activist Aruna Roy says: “The conviction sends out a warning to other information seekers on what can happen if you ask questions.”
Activists Under Attack
Attacks on RTI users are not rare. In 2015 Guru Prasad Shukla of UP was beaten to death by fellow villagers. He had sought information on development work in his village. Earlier this year activist Suhas Haldankar, who had exposed civic irregularities in Pune, was murdered.
“At least 65 people have lost their lives for seeking information and exposing corruption since RTI came into force. Many have been attacked,” says Dey.
In Odisha, two RTI activists have been murdered and 50 been subjected to brutal attacks, says Pradip Pradhan, state convener of Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijan. Rolly Shivhare, an activist in Madhya Pradesh, says access to information has become more difficult in the state in the last two-three years.
In Delhi, Prakasho, a resident of Jagdamba Camp, filed an RTI application in February this year, after she stopped receiving her widow pension from the women and child development department in October last year. When she received no reply, she filed a first appeal in April. There’s been no hearing yet, but after the first appeal was filed, a member of the Satark Nagarik Sangathan (SNS) says, officials of the department came to her house and told her that she should not file RTIs and should just come to the department. They also allegedly videographed the interaction to intimidate her.
Bhardwaj believes that the only way to ensure some safety to applicants is to make the information public in case there is an attack on an applicant or he/she dies. Activist Aruna Roy feels that this needs to be done also because “the intent of the law is that the information being sought is, in any case, public information”.
Not just activists, even current serving members of the Central Information Commission are against these proposed rules. M Sridhar Acharyulu, a central information commissioner, in his suggestion to the DoPT on the proposed rules, has said: “If an applicant is killed by a mafia about whom the information was sought, why should it not be disclosed? Will law allow the killing of the applicant, the appeal and the RTI?” He is also of the opinion that the CIC should have been consulted before framing the draft rules.
There are other proposals in the draft rules that make access to information more difficult for common people. For example, the new rules ask for more documents and certificates to be given in support of an appeal. The appeal can be returned if all the documents are not there. “Instead of simplifying the process which was already somewhat cumbersome, they have made the process even more cumbersome,” says Bhardwaj.
The pendency of cases at the commission is very high. Appeals often take a long time to be heard. Take the case of Kanso Devi. A resident of Savitri Nagar in Delhi, Devi stopped getting her widow pension from the MCD in August 2014. She first filed a complaint in the department and when she received no response, filed an RTI in May 2015. She is still awaiting a response, say SNS members.
Meanwhile, most people feel, little attempt has been made to introduce positive changes to the RTI rules. Section 4 of the RTI Act mentions that the government should provide certain kinds of information suo motu. But as Acharyulu writes in his suggestions to the DoPT: “The proposed Rules do not have a single rule that guides the public authorities to comply with this,” which he feels will help bring down the number of RTIs.
The one good thing that has been introduced in the proposed rules, feels Bhardwaj is that it addresses the issue of non-compliance of orders of the Commission – a problem which activists say is widespread. But the problems with the draft rules outweigh the positives.
This is not the first time that changes have been proposed to the RTI Act or its rules. The UPA which had brought in the RTI Act had made at least three subsequent attempts to change it. There were also incidents of threats and attacks on activists under its regime and cases of delayed response or unsatisfactory information. “When it comes to secrecy, every government would like to disclose as little as possible,” says Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator of the Access to Information Programme in the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). “But under the UPA, the good thing was that there was the National Advisory Council, which had a lot of supporters of transparency, advising the government.”
Nayak says that in the last two years, in some government department, even when the number of RTIs received has gone down, the number of rejections have gone up. He says that while the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats, external affairs ministry and information technology are prompt in their RTI replies, the home and defence ministries are very slow.
“The UPA, at least in the end, had become a completely open government, there was no fear, you could discuss stuff. Here there is so much fear, people don’t talk, they have been told not to talk to the media, to activists,” says Dey. “Through the RTI we were looking to bring in a culture of openness. The worst part of the NDA now is the culture of secrecy, fear, not sharing.”
Then there are allegations of frivolous RTIs, says Bhardwaj, under the UPA and now. She gives the example of a tweet by minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju where he mentioned an RTI application asking about zombie attacks. “Most RTI applications are serious in nature. So for a minister to tweet or write about that one RTI application is a problem,” she says. Allegations of frivolous and bogus RTIs being filed are many though, and even activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal wants action against such applicants. “So many times bogus applications are filed in my name,” says the activist, who suggests increasing of RTI fees as one of ways to check such practices. Identity proofs should also be made compulsory with RTI applications, he says.
Meanwhile, an officer in the DoPT has confirmed that they have received suggestions from the public and are considering them. “Once the final draft has been drawn, it will be sent to the minister,” he said. He did not give a date by which one may expect the final rules.
Till the final list is announced there is little that one can do except wait, and hope that the new rules are not such that will make access to information even more challenging than it already is.