New Delhi: In the four years that the pioneering Right to Information (RTI) Act has been in force, an audit shows that the legislation has achieved a success rate of about one in four.
The proportion of appeals filed under RTI that have succeeded in getting the information sought has been put at 27% in a study by the National RTI Awards Secretariat instituted by the Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF), a Delhi-based organization that works in the area of transparent, accountable and participatory governance.
The study, based on orders passed in 51,128 cases by information commissioners and benches during 2008, shows that at a national level, orders have been passed in favour of disclosure in 70% of the cases.
“Despite this, there has been 61% of non-compliance of these orders, with only 39% actually receiving the information,” said Arvind Kejriwal, RTI activist and founder of PCRF.
That doesn’t take away from RTI’s success in bringing transparency to a system where there used to be none, said Jagdeep Chhokar, founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a Delhi-based non-governmental organization.
“It’s the way we interpret this data,” he said. “A figure like 39% people getting information is a positive figure if you see that it has been a jump from zero.”
The landmark legislation was passed during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s first term as part of its efforts to make the officialdom more accountable.
In the area of overall public satisfaction, Karnataka tops the list with 55% petitioners happy with the functioning of the commission, with Kerala (52%) and Punjab (47%) next in line.
Listen to a podcast with Shailesh Gandhi, an information commissioner with the Central Information Commission
At the bottom of the ladder is West Bengal, where only 6% of the petitioners were content with the response they received.
Interestingly, the Central Information Commission (CIC) itself falls in the bottom five.
The study does not include Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Sikkim because of inadequate information.
Experts say that RTI has “actually brought out the poor governance structure in the country,” said Shailesh Gandhi, an information commissioner with CIC.
But the disclosures by themselves aren’t enough to bring about change, said Gandhi. “Government departments cannot hold anybody responsible.”
Gandhi defended CIC’s functioning even while welcoming such studies, saying they would help in making RTI more effective. “There have been other studies on RTI, which have given a better rating to the effectiveness of the Act,” he said.
The parameters used by the study include effectiveness, deterrent impact and the pro-disclosure factor.
“Under the Act, information commissioners have powers to levy penalty on defaulting government officers as well as issue summons and order arrests. But hardly any information commissioner actually uses these powers,” said Kejriwal.
“In all the cases in which pro-disclosure orders were passed, which means that a violation of RTI Act was established, only 2% were penalized,” he added.
RTI has, in the past, contributed towards the better implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, another flagship programme of the UPA government.
For instance, workers in Balisana village in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, who were grossly underpaid, received their payments under the Act as per minimum wage provisions after an RTI appeal was filed by a civil society group asking for muster rolls and payment sheets.
Another instance where RTI has proved useful is in the area of transparency of political funding after CIC directed the income-tax department to make public the returns of political parties following an RTI filed by ADR.
The RTI Act also helped in creating greater accountability in the appointment of government officers.
For instance, the Delhi high court came under the RTI scanner recently when CIC held that people have a right to know the procedure that went into the appointment of its public information officer.
Reports about the government’s plans to further amend the Act have not gone down well with activists.
“Its first agenda should be to to make implementation more effective and strengthen it, rather than focusing on amending it,” PCRF’s Kejriwal said.
Others called for a more careful selection of officials.
“The single biggest problem with the implementation of the Act is the appointment process and criterion” used to choose the information commissioners, ADR’s Chhokar said.