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India is losing its cherished right to know

GS Paper 2

Syllabus: Statutory, regulatory and various quasi-judicial bodies

 

Source: TH

 Direction: This is an editorial article. The article highlights how the 2019 amendments to the RTI Act affected the functioning of the Central Information Commission.

  

Context:

  • The Central Information Commission’s (CIC) most important role is to decide whether particular information sought by a person should be disclosed or not.
  • However, the commission appears to have abandoned its core task in matters of greater public importance.

 

Background:

  • Citizens can file applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act with any public entity and are guaranteed a response from that public body’s public information officer within 30 days.
  • If the citizen does not receive a response or is dissatisfied with the response, s/he may file an appeal at the departmental level, followed by a second and ultimate appeal with the Information Commission.
  • Each state has its own State Information Commission that handles second appeals involving state agencies. The CIC is in the centre.

 

Functioning of CIC as a transparent body:

  • The commission was an outspoken supporter of transparency in public life.
  • It had issued orders in a wide range of public-interest cases. For example,
    • Boldly declaring that political parties were subject to the RTI Act and thus accountable to the public.
    • Requiring disclosure of the current Prime Minister’s educational qualifications and the Reserve Bank of India’s list of wilful loan defaulters.

 

The 2019 amendment to the RTI Act:

 

Impact of amendments on the functioning of CIC:

  • Delegating its mandate to the Home Ministry:
    • The Commission has delegated matters of public concern to the Ministry, such as cases demanding disclosure of files related to the COVID-19 national lockdown or data pertaining to phone tapping orders.
    • In most cases, the Ministries reiterate their previous position of non-disclosure, usually on the vague grounds of national interest.
  • Violation of the cardinal rule of natural justice: No one should be a judge in their own cause. However, the Ministry that stands accused of violating the RTI Act decides whether a disclosure is necessary.
  • Huge pendency of cases fairly simple to adjudicate: For example, in a case seeking disclosure of documents relating to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019, the commission has kept the matter pending for more than three months now.
  • New hurdles to a citizen’s demand for accountability: As the disclosure of information in public-interest matters is denied.
  • Protection against irritants: Bureaucrats reject RTIs as they are not afraid of facing penal provisions outlined in Section 20 of the RTI Act.

 

Way ahead:

  • Citizens must exert intense pressure on authorities to appoint commissioners of integrity.
  • Lawyers must assist willing citizens in taking cases to court and seeking justice.

 

Conclusion: There is a need for civil society and citizens to pressurise authorities to ensure transparency and neutrality of CIC. If they fail to do so, India will lose its cherished right to know.

 

Central Information Commission (CIC):

●        Established by the Central Government in 2005, under the provisions of the Right to Information Act (2005).

●        Members: The Commission consists of a Chief Information Commissioner and not more than ten Information Commissioners.

●        Appointment: They are appointed by the President on the recommendation of a committee consisting of the Prime Minister as Chairperson, the leader of the single largest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha and a Union Cabinet Minister nominated by the Prime Minister.

●        Tenure: The Chief Information Commissioner and an Information Commissioner shall hold office for such term as prescribed by the Central Government or until they attain the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. They are not eligible for reappointment.

 

Power and Functions of CIC:

●        It is the duty of the Commission to receive and inquire into a complaint from any person regarding information requested under RTI, 2005.

●        The Commission can order an inquiry into any matter if there are reasonable grounds (suo-moto power).

●        While inquiring, the Commission has the powers of a civil court in respect of summoning, requiring documents etc.

 

Insta Curious

Do you know the Right to Information Act in India and the UK Freedom of Information Act came into force in the same year – 2005?

 

Insta Links:

Pending RTI pleas

 

Mains Links:

Q. The Central Information Commission, the apex body under India’s transparency regime must take urgent steps to remove hurdles in the citizens’ quest for accountability. Examine. (250 words)