Is the RTI Act fulfilling its purpose?

Source– The post is based on the article “Is the RTI Act fulfilling its purpose?” published in The Hindu on 16th December 2022.

Syllabus: GS2- Important aspects of Governance, Transparency and Accountability

Relevance– Issues related to Good governance

News– The article explains the issues related to working of the RTI regime.

Is the RTI Act fulfilling its purpose?

It has been one of the most empowering legislations for people because it puts an obligation on the government to respond to them in a time-bound manner and to get them information to hold the government accountable. The law has tilted the balance of power in favour of those governed.

A majority of the RTI applications are filed by people who are asking about their basic rights and entitlements. So it has fulfilled its purpose to that extent.

People have used the RTI law to know what is happening with taxpayers’ money. This has enabled them to expose big-ticket scams such as the Adarsh, Commonwealth Games and Vyapam scams. They’ve also been able to expose human rights violations, and then force accountability in those cases as well.

The Act is still effective despite the widespread attempts to dilute its efficacy. Officers still think twice before replying to an RTI query, which reflects the seriousness with which it is taken.

Do you have to be an RTI expert to know how to properly file questions?

The law basically ensures that there is no set format in which an RTI application has to be filed. It’s a fairly straightforward, simple process. A very large percentage of RTI applications are filed by the poorest and the most marginalised.

But when one asks for complex information on large scams or cases of violations of the law or human rights, it has to be framed in a very detailed manner. Here expertise is required.

There are other issues related to RTI filing. If you file an application in Odisha, they have a particular format for filing. These sorts of rules create hindrances for people. There are some States where you can only file an RTI application within 150 words. Condensing the question becomes a challenge.

What are the challenges faced by the RTI Act?

Resistance by bureaucracy– The public information officers these days use excuses like this division does not have the information. So now they are putting the liability on the applicant to find out which officer and which office will hold that information.

Resistance to sharing of information– Within the government, asking for information is not encouraged. Government departments do not maintain datasets and information. They are reluctant to put information in the public domain. The 2021 census hasn’t happened, and the government is now saying it’s been indefinitely postponed.

Dilution of law– Successive governments have tried to whittle down this law. It began with the United Progressive Alliance itself. State governments have tried and are still trying to do it.

Two biggest and successful attempts have been made by the National Democratic Alliance government. Once in 2019, and the second now, by way of the Data Protection Bill which will most likely pass.

Vacancies– We have huge vacancies in information commissions. It means that appeals and complaints keep pending.

How will the Data Protection Bill will undermine the RTI Act?

The Data Protection Bill will set up a system of amending the RTI law in a manner that all personal information will be exempted.

The entire proactive disclosure scheme provided for under the RTI Act may be completely undermined.

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