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Right to food? Why India's information commissions 'failed' a poor Delhi widow

Right: Reena 
Counterview Desk
Reena, a 33 year old widow with two little children, ekes out a living working as domestic help. She lives in Delhi’s Kusumpur Pahari, a slum settlement with extremely poor physical and social infrastructure. Reena applied for a ration card in the Food Department of the Delhi government in September 2018 and in January 2019 she filed a Right to Information (RTI) application regarding the action taken on her request for a ration card.
In the meantime, her widow pension was abruptly stopped by the department of Women and Child Development without any intimation. Reena filed an RTI application on January 31, 2019. Upon receiving no response despite filing a first appeal in both cases, Reena filed second appeals in the Central Information Commission on June 20, 2019 regarding both matters.
Reena still awaits her second appeal hearing. Without a ration card and her widow pension, she and her children have been struggling to cope through the Covid-19 crisis that has hit the working poor the hardest, says “Report Card of Information Commissions in India 2019-20”, giving an example of how the poorer sections of society have been suffering because of ineffective functioning of India’s Central and state information commissions.
Prepared by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and the Centre for Equity Studies (CES), the report says, inability for the CIC’s and ICs’ function up to the desired level has become “a major bottleneck in the effective implementation” of the RTI Act.

Excerpts:

Successive assessments of the functioning of information commissions (ICs) have shown that appointments to commissions are not made in a timely manner, resulting in a large number of vacancies. In February 2019, the Supreme Court, in its judgment on a PIL regarding non-appointment of information commissioners, ruled that the proper functioning of commissions with adequate number of commissioners is vital for effective implementation of the RTI Act. The judgment emphasized that if commissions do not function with adequate number of commissioners, it would negate the very purpose of enacting the RTI law.
Several ICs were non-functional, or were functioning at reduced capacity despite large backlogs, as the posts of commissioners and chief information commissioners were vacant. This is particularly concerning given the crisis situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made people, including migrant workers, even more dependent on government provision of essential goods and services like healthcare, food and social security. Without access to relevant information citizens are unable to get their rights and entitlements and corruption thrives.
Two information commissions were found to be defunct for varying lengths of time. In the absence of functional commissions, information seekers have no reprieve under the RTI Act if they are unable to access information as per the provisions of the law.
The Chief Information Commissioner of the Jharkhand SIC, demitted office in November 2019. The lone information commissioner in the IC was made the acting Chief, although no such explicit provision exists under the RTI Act. Since the completion of the tenure of the commissioner on May 8, 2020, the information commission has been without any commissioner, rendering it completely defunct. People seeking information from public authorities under the jurisdiction of the Jharkhand SIC have had no recourse to the independent appellate mechanism prescribed under the RTI Act if their right to information is violated.
Currently, 9 out of 29 information commissions are functioning without a Chief information commissioner. The Central Information Commission has been without a Chief commissioner since August 27, 2020. This is the fifth time in 6 years that the CIC has been rendered headless due to the delay in appointing a new Chief upon the incumbent demitting office. 
During the time period under review for this report, the post was also vacant for nearly two months when the incumbent retired on January 11, 2020 and a new Chief was appointed on March 6, 2020. All retirements have been routine, occurring due to the commissioner either completing the stipulated tenure or attaining the age of 65 years.
The Chief of the Rajasthan Commission demitted office in December 2018, more than 20 months ago. Since then, no one has been appointed to the post. As per news reports and the SIC website, a serving information commissioner has been given additional charge as chief, although there is no such explicit provision under the RTI Act, 2005. 
The SIC of UP has been functioning without a Chief for 8 months, since February 2020. After the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, and creation of the state of Telangana in 2014, the state information commission was constituted in 2017. The chief commissioner demitted office in August 2020 and since then an existing commissioner is functioning with the additional charge of the chief, though there is no such explicit provision in the law. 
Several information commissions were found to be functioning at reduced capacity with multiple posts of commissioners lying vacant despite large backlogs. The non-appointment of commissioners in the ICs in a timely manner leads to a large build-up of pending appeals and complaints.
As of April 2019, the Central Information Commission was functioning with 7 information commissioners. In December 2019, the Supreme Court directed the government to fill all vacancies within a period of 3 months. With the retirement of the Chief in January 2020, the number of commissioners fell to 6. In March 2020, an existing commissioner was appointed as the Chief and one more information commissioner was appointed, thus taking the tally back to 7. 
Since then, the Chief has demitted office in August 2020 and another commissioner finished his tenure in September. As a result, currently, the CIC is functioning with only 5 commissioners. The post of the Chief and 5 posts of commissioners are vacant, even as the backlog of appeals/complaints has been steadily increasing and currently stands at more than 36,500 cases. 
The SIC of Maharashtra has been functioning with just five information commissioners, including the Chief, since early 2019. Due to the commission functioning at reduced strength, the number of pending appeals/complaints has risen at an alarming rate. The backlog increased from 46,000 appeals and complaints on March 31, 2019 to nearly 60,000 on July 2020. The apex court, in its judgment in February 2019, had observed that given the large pendency in the SIC, it would be appropriate if the commission functioned at full strength of 11 commissioners, including the Chief.
The Odisha SIC is functioning with 4 commissioners despite having a pendency of nearly 15,000 appeals and complaints. The Rajasthan SIC is functioning with 3 commissioners despite a backlog of nearly 14,000 appeals and complaints as of July 2020.
The CIC and the SICs of Gujarat and Jharkhand returned a large number of appeals/complaints without passing any orders during the period April 2019 to July 31, 2020. The CIC returned a whopping 15,051 appeals/complaints while it registered 27,521 during the period under review. 
The SIC of Jharkhand returned 4,574 appeals/complaints while it registered 5,799, and the SIC of Gujarat returned 4,174 cases without passing any orders, while it registered 8,265 appeals/complaints. The trend of a large number of cases being returned by the CIC began in 2015, when there was a sudden surge in the number of cases being returned. 
The large backlog of appeals and complaints in ICs results in information seekers having to wait for long periods of time for their cases to be heard. Using data on the backlog of cases in ICs and their monthly rate of disposal, the time it would take for an appeal/complaint filed with an IC on August 1, 2020 to be disposed was computed (assuming appeals and complaints are disposed in a chronological order). 

Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on functioning of ICs

An analysis of the information obtained from 23 commissions shows that the SIC of Meghalaya suspended all hearings for the longest period of time i.e. 127 days, followed by the Rajasthan SIC which suspended hearings for 105 days. The SIC of West Bengal initially suspended hearings for 56 days, following which they started online hearings. However, the SIC again suspended hearings in June, September and October on account of SIC staff being detected Covid positive.
At the time of finalising of this report (October 21), hearings had again been suspended vide notification dated October 13, which stated that “in view of further identification of Covid-19 positive case within the office of West Bengal Information Commission, online hearings of appeals and complaints under the RTI ACT, 2005 have been suspended with immediate effect and will resume after the Puja vacations”.
The CIC suspended hearings for the least amount of time i.e. 21 days during the initial lockdown. Of the 21 commissions which provided relevant information, only 35% made provision for hearing urgent matters or those related to life of liberty during the period when hearings were suspended.

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