New Delhi: When it comes to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Union government has turned out to be a lawbreaker.
Two years after the sunshine legislation was passed by Parliament, the government is yet to implement the most basic provision in the Act: computerize every departmental record and make them public.
“Almost 90% of the RTI applications would not be necessary if the government were to make all information public,” said Aruna Roy, the Magsaysay Award winner and one of the leaders of the RTI movement in India.
Wajahat Habibullah, Chief information commissioner
“Section 4 of the Act was supposed to be implemented on 13 October 2005 (a day after the passing of the Act),” she said. “But it still has not been done. There is so much debate about the efficiency of the information commissions. But we are all missing the woods for the trees. First, the government needs to make all records available to the public on demand.”
As per this provision, all government offices would need to make available information pertaining to their decision-making process, categories of documents under their control, budget allocated to various departments, details of the personnel working in the departments including the salaries they collected, the contracts they had entered into and so on.
As of now, almost none of the Union ministries, leave alone the state governments, have made their websites totally RTI-compliant. Most of the Union government websites pay lip service to the demands made of them under the RTI legislation and have published minimal information about their working, say observers.
Chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah concedes that non-compliance of Section 4 by government departments was indeed worrying. But the solution to the problem can be found only by the government, he adds.
“What we at the (Central Information) Commission (CIC) can do is that if someone complains to us about a particular department that has not furnished information suo motu, then we can ask them why they have not done so,” he says.
Another problem faced by the CIC is the rising number of cases where the respondents have secured stay orders from high courts against the orders passed by the commission. Habibullah singles out the Securities and Exchange Board of India, some power distribution companies as well as some educational institutions, saying they have gone and successfully appealed to state high courts, rendering the CIC’s orders redundant.
Aruna Roy, Leading RTI activist
According to Habibullah, these problems, however, have not come in the way of more people using the Act. “I expect the number of applications that we handle to soon touch 1,000 from the present figure of 700” a month, he says. “The government is coming to terms slowly with the Act. We have also been assured of support for a restructuring exercise by the finance ministry.”
According to the CIC’s last published annual report of 2006, the finance, railways and urban development ministries, respectively, have received the maximum number of RTI applications during the year. The Delhi Development Authority, Hindustan Shipyard Ltd and the tourism department were the top three departments to be flooded with queries.
Meanwhile, technology has also played a role in making RTI more popular. Around a hundred people from across the country have demanded information from authorities through applications via video conferencing. Habibullah says a telephone call centre is also being planned, which would help applicants track the status of their applications.
E-governance experts also say that computerization of records coupled with the provisions in the law pertaining to non-compliance would make government programmes all the more transparent.
“RTI will be the single biggest driver of e-governance in India,” says Sameer Kochchar of Skoch Consultancy Services Pvt Ltd, which specializes in e-governance projects for rural India.