The Modi government is so transparent that it is eliminating the need to file Right to Information (RTI) requests, Home Minister Amit Shah said on Saturday, speaking on the 14th anniversary of the RTI Act.
A large number of RTI applications does not indicate the success of a government. We want to introduce a system where people do not feel the need to file an RTI request in order to get information, because the government has already pro-actively put the information in the public domain, said Mr. Shah, who was the chief guest at the 14th annual convention of the Central Information Commission (CIC), the highest appeal body under the RTI Act.
Over the last 14 years, the RTI Act has acted as a bridge between the government and the people, to build the publics trust in the system, said the Home Minister. His statement comes at a time when the Home Ministry has responded to a recent RTI request on the shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, stating that it has no information on orders issued to detain political leaders or to curb telecom, internet and transport networks in the State.
From sanitation and cooking gas schemes to spectrum auctions and FIRs filed in police stations, all information is being made available through digital dashboards which people can access without any need to file RTI requests, said Mr. Shah, adding that a digitally-empowered society was reducing corruption while increasing transparency and speed of governance.
RTI activists warned that information dissemination by the government does not dilute the need for a robust RTI system. The RTI Act itself envisages government making information available pro-actively, but at the end of the day, I should be able to access the information that I need, not just the information that the government wants to publicise, said Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for the Right to Information.
No appointments since RTI Amendments Act
In his speech, Mr. Shah made no mention of this years biggest change to the RTI law. In July, the Centre pushed the RTI Amendments Act through both houses of Parliament, giving itself the power to set the tenure and salaries of State and Central information commissioners, thus potentially threatening their autonomy.
Despite widespread vacancies, no new commissioners have been appointed since then. The government has not yet framed the rules after amending the Act, so no commissioners can be appointed anywhere in the country until it does that. This is simply a way of stifling the commissions and the implementation of the Act, said Ms. Bhardwaj.
She has approached the Supreme Court again, seeking its intervention to ensure implementation of its February 2019 order directing the Centre and states to immediately fill the vacancies in the commissions.
The vacancies are exacerbating the rising backlog of RTI appeal cases. According to a study on the State and Central commissions, the total backlog stood at 2.18 lakh cases in March 2019, in comparison to 1.85 lakh cases a year earlier. At the CIC alone, which has four vacancies out of 11 positions, the pendency of cases have risen 36% from March 2018 to more than 33,000 in October 2019, and a new petitioner must wait a year and seven months for her case to be disposed.
The situation is worse in some states. We only have two members in the commission including me, so there are nine vacancies, said S. Raja Sadaram, chief information commissioner of Telangana. Over the last two years, he and his colleague have disposed of more than 10,500 cases, but over 7,000 cases remain pending.