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'All-time high' dissatisfaction with Govt of India's RTI replies, new CIC report suggests

By Venkatesh Nayak* 

Two weeks ago, the first set of our findings from a preliminary analysis of the Central Information Commission’s (CIC) 2021-22 Annual Report (AR) was circulated. Readers will recall, the AR contains a wealth of data regarding the use and the implementation of The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second set of findings from our preliminary analysis of the 2021-22 AR is given below under the following segments:
I Trends with regard to the receipt of first appeals
II Trends with regard to the disposal of first appeals
The spreadsheet attached here contains implementation figures reported by the CIC in the latest AR across 75 entities- Ministries, standalone Departments, key public authorities and the Union Territories administration. It contains the following data tables in descending chronological order:
1) On Sheet 1: the combined RTI statistics for the Union Government covering the years 2005-2022;
2) On Sheet 2: data tables for all Ministries and the standalone Departments of Atomic and Energy and Space in descending order of the number of fresh RTI applications received between 2019-22;
3) On Sheet 3: data tables for key constitutional and public authorities at the Union Government level covering the years 2019-22;
4) On Sheet 4: data tables for the three defence forces in descending covering the years 2019-22; and
5) On Sheet 5: data tables for the Union Territories Administration covering the years 2019-22.
Major findings from this round of analysis are:
1) In 2021-22, the number of first appeals submitted across public authorities under the Union Government is at an all-time high of 1.62 lakh (1,62,990). This indicates a very high degree of dissatisfaction with the performance of these public authorities of their obligations under the RTI Act;
2) Although the disposal rate has improved significantly in 2021-22 as compared to the performance in previous years, first appellate authorities across the Union Government were able to dispose of only 1.05 lakh (105,535) first appeals by the end of March 2022. In other words, more than a third of the first appeals submitted in 2021-22 remained undecided at the end of the year.

Detailed findings

According to the CIC’s AR, 2,278 of the 2,383 Central level public authorities registered with the CIC rejected 53,733 RTI applications. We have already pointed out in the first set of our analytical findings that, there is a discrepancy between the total number of rejections and the percentages as calculated at row #8 of the data tables and the total that is displayed after the exemption-wise data is presented in Annexure I of the CIC’s AR. The figure mentioned at the bottom of the data table (after row #31) is 55,124 instances of rejection (see page no. 179).
This is a discrepancy of more than 1,391 cases. This discrepancy might be due to a glitch in the data entry software or it might be due to errors committed during data entry by the representatives of the public authorities. In the spreadsheet attached below, wherever there is a discrepancy in the totals, the figure mentioned in row #8 is highlighted in red coloured font for the convenience of readers. The correct tally is mentioned in the Column #Y, #X or #W (as may be applicable) of every data table. These figures are used below for all calculations and comparative purposes.

I. Trends with regard to the receipt of first appeals

i) In any reporting year, one would expect the number of first appeals submitted to the public authorities to be equal to the number of RTI applications rejected by the Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs), if not fewer (allowing for the possibility that some RTI applicants might not be keen on pursuing the matter beyond the initial stage). If the proportion of first appeals is higher than the number of rejections issued in any year, it implies, more RTI applicants were aggrieved by the quality or the quantity of information received than those who received rejections.
ii) Further, according to Section 19(1) of the RTI Act, an RTI applicant has the right to submit a first appeal if he or she is not only aggrieved by any decision of the CPIO but also if the CPIO fails to give a decision within the time limits prescribed in Section 7(1) of the RTI Act (30 days in ordinary cases and 48 hours where the information concerns an individual’s life or liberty). According to Section 7(2) of the Act, where a CPIO fails to provide a response within the statutory timeline, the RTI application will be deemed to be rejected. So, an RTI applicant may submit a first appeal in such cases also. Annexure-I of the CIC’s AR does not have a column displaying data about the instances in which the CPIOs failed to respond within the statutory deadlines.

a) Upward trend:

i) First appeals have always outnumbered rejections since 2012-13- when for the first time the CIC published appeals-related data in its AR. In that year, 2,333 public authorities registered with the CIC rejected 75,802 RTI applications. The total number of first appeals submitted in that year was 89,655. In other words, for every RTI application rejected, more than one appeal was submitted. The ratio between rejections and first appeals submitted was 1:1.8 in 2012-13. In 2018-19, this ratio climbed up to 1:2.12 i.e., for every RTI application rejected, more than two appeals were submitted (1,51,481 first appeals filed when only 71,321 applications were rejected by 2,145 public authorities);
ii) In 2021-22, the number of first appeals submitted across public authorities under the Union Government is at an all-time high of 1,62,990. The ratio of rejections to first appeals submitted is also the highest in the last 10 years at 1:2.96 (55,124 rejections). In other words, for every RTI application that a public authority rejected in the Union Government, almost three first appeals were submitted. This indicates a very high degree of dissatisfaction with the performance of these public authorities of their obligations under the RTI Act;
iii) In 2021-22, the ratio of rejections to first appeals submitted was much higher than the average for the Union Government in several Ministries. For example, in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting the ratio was 1:61.18 (only 17 rejections against 1,040 first appeals); in the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution it was 1:24.56 (only 61 rejections against 1,498 first appeals); in the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, it was 1:23.83 (207 rejections against 4,932 first appeals); in the Ministry of Jal Shakti, it was 1:14.70 (23 rejections against 338 first appeals);
iv) Other Ministries which reported above the Union Government’s overall ratio of rejections to first appeals: Communications- 1:5.68 (1,552 rejections against 8,816 first appeals), Health and Family Welfare- 1:5.30 (1,035 rejections against 5,483 first appeals), Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare- 1:7.41 (163 rejections against 1,208 first appeals), Law and Justice- 1:10.45 (66 rejections against 690 first appeals), Civil Aviation- 1:6.86 (141 rejections against 967 first appeals), Science and Technology- 1:5.60 (164 rejections against 919 first appeals);
v) A few Ministries reported “0%” rejection but received a large number of first appeals. The Ministry of Rural Development reported that it did not reject any RTI application in 2021-22, but it received 650 first appeals. Similarly, the Ministry of Culture received 430 first appeals despite not having rejected any RTI application. Other ministries which did not report any rejections but which received a large number of first appeals are: Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (333 first appeals), Minority Affairs (142 first appeals), Tribal Affairs (137 first appeals);
vi) Among key public authorities, the following reported higher than the Union Government’s overall ratio of rejections to first appeals: Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)- 1:19.72 (72 rejections against 1,420 first appeals), Indian Army- 1:7.31 (1,251 rejections against 9,148 first appeals); and Delhi Police- 1:3.57 (1,736 rejections against 6,207 first appeals);
vii) The UT of Delhi reported a rejection to first appeal ratio of 1:7.16 (1,640 rejections against 9,156 first appeals) while the UT of Puducherry reported a ratio of 1:3.02 (278 rejections against 879 first appeals);
viii) Key public authorities which reported “0%” rejection but had received a large number of first appeals are: CIC (510 first appeals) and the Election Commission of India (208 appeals). The UT of Jammu and Kashmir also reported “0%” rejections but received 48 first appeals in 2021-22;
ix) Further, all the ministries mentioned above reported a significant hike in the rejections to first appeals ratio in 2021-22 as compared with the ratio noticeable in 2020-21;
x) In terms of absolute numbers, the top-5 Ministries which reported the highest number of first appeals received in 2021-22 are: Finance (24,065), Education (19,054), Defence (15,590), Railways (15,421) and Home Affairs (9,445). Taken together, these Ministries accounted for 51.28% of the total volume of first appeals received across the Union Government;

b) Downward trend:

i) Only two Ministries reported fewer first appeals than rejections in 2021-22. The Ministry of External Affairs rejected 1,210 RTI applications and received only 995 first appeals bringing down the rejections to appeals ratio to 1:0.82. Similarly, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers rejected 343 RTIs but received only 338 appeals. So, the ratio of rejections to first appeals is 1:0.98;
In 2021-22, number of first appeals submitted across public authorities under Union Government is at all-time high of 1.62 lakh
ii) Despite reporting a ratio of rejections to first appeals much higher than the Union Government’s overall average, the following Ministries actually witnessed a decline in the ratio in 2021-22 as compared with the ratio in 2020-21: Education- 1:22.70 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:16.61 in 2021-22, Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions- 1:4.86 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:3.15 in 2021-22, Road Transport and Highways- 1:44.63 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:13.03 in 2021-22, Housing and Urban Affairs- 1:19.06 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:16.72 in 2021-22, Social Justice and Empowerment- 1:24.28 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:9.82 in 2021-22, Commerce and Industry- 1:6.37 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:5.98 in 2021-22, Science and Technology- 1:6.70 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:5.60 in 2021-22, Environment and Forests- 1:18.73 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:5.23 in 2021-22, and Women and Child Development- 1:23.19 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:22.23 in 2021-22;
iii) Despite receiving the highest number of first appeals in 2021-22, as mentioned above, the Ministry of Finance actually witnessed a decline in the rejections to first appeals ratio- it was 1:1.13 in 2020-21 but fell to 1:11 in 2021-22. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy reported a ratio of rejections to first appeals of 1:9.14 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:1.73 in 2021-22;
iv) Key public authorities which also reported a decline in the rejections to appeals ratio are: President’s Secretariat- 1:36.93 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:31.11 in 2021-22, Cabinet Secretariat- 1:2.86 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:1.49 in 2021-22, NITI Aayog- 1:2.41 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:1.38 in 2021-22 and the Indian Army- 1:13.94 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:7.31 in 2021-22;
v) Among the UTs, Dadra, Nagarhaveli, Daman and Diu did not reject any RTI application in 2020-21 but received 25 first appeals that year. In 2021-22 it rejected three RTI applications and received 35 first appeals taking the rejections to first appeals ratio to 1:11.67. In the UT of Puducherry this ratio was- 1:4.42 in 2020-21 which declined to 1:3.02 in 2021-22.

II. Trends with regard to the disposal of first appeals

a) Upward trend:

i) The CIC began publishing data with regard to the disposal of first appeals also in its annual reports from 2012-13. The highest rate of disposal was reported in 2015-16 at 96.84%. Thereafter, the disposal rate plummeted every year until it reached 61.97% in 2020-21. However, the disposal rate has improved significantly in 2021-22 by rising to 64.75%. Of the 1.62 lakh (162,990) first appeals received by the 2,278 public authorities at the Central level, 1.05 lakh (105,535) first appeals are said to have been disposed of by the end of March 2022. In other words, more than a third of the first appeals submitted in 2021-22 remained undecided at the end of the year;
ii) Only two Ministries- Development of Northeastern Region (30) and Parliamentary Affairs (5) had disposed of all first appeals received in 2021-22;
iii) Ministries which disposed of more than 90% of the first appeals in 2021-22 are: Food Processing (95.24%), Civil Aviation (92.66%), New and Renewable Energy (92.11%), Tribal Affairs (91.97%), Panchayati Raj (91.81%), Statistics and Programme Implementation (91.39%), Petroleum and Natural Gas (90.91%) and Youth Affairs and Sports (90.58%). It must be noted that all of these ministries received fewer first appeals as compared with the other Ministries which had lower rates of disposal;
iv) Ministries which disposed of between 80-90% of the first appeals received in 2021-22 are: Minority Affairs (89.44%), Communications (89.38%), Labour and Employment (88.87%), Science and Technology (87.38%), Information and Broadcasting (86.92%), Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (86.79%), Environment and Forests (86.41%), External Affairs (86.33%), Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (85.95%), Earth Sciences (84.37%), Social Justice and Empowerment (83.38%), Railways (81.15%), Health and Family Welfare (81.42%), Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (80.55%), Electronics and Information Technology (80.36%). Several others reported disposal rates between 50-70%;
vi) Among the 10 key public authorities included in this study, above 90% disposal rate for first appeals was reported only by the NITI Aayog (98.70%) and the CIC (95.5%). Among the UTs, Lakshadweep reported disposal of 96.55% of the first appeals received in 2021-22 while Chandigarh reported disposal of 90.89%;
vii) Ministries which showed significant improvement in their first disposal rate in 2021-22 as compared with their performance in 2020-21 are: Finance- 62.62%- up from 61.45%, Railways- 81.15%- up from 71.77%, Road Transport and Highways- 70.6%- up from 56.79%, Law and Justice- 53.91%- up from 37.5%, Commerce and Industry- 79.64%- up from 75.93%, Chemicals and Fertilisers- 76.04%- up from 66.67% and Tourism- 75.68%- up from 71.43%. The Department of Atomic Energy also improved disposal of first appeals in 2021-22 to 72.67% from 66.44% reported in 2020-21;

viii) The Indian Navy disposed 80.45% of the first appeals- up from 52.39% reported in 2020-21. The Indian Air Force disposed of 76.6% of the first appeals in 2021-22- up from 73.96% reported in 2020-21;ix) The UT of Delhi also showed improvement disposing 77.96% of the first appeals in 2021-22 as compared with 70.12% reported in 2020-21. Jammu and Kashmir reported 75% disposal for first appeals in 2021-22 whereas it had disposed of only 47.75% of the first appeals in 2020-21.

b) Downward trend:

i) The lowest first appeal disposal rate among Ministries was reported by Ayush (21.20%). Other Ministries which reported less than 50% disposal rates are: Housing and Urban Affairs (32.21%), Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises (35.70%), Defence (37.42%), Education (44.74%), Power (46.11%). However, the Defence Ministry has improved its performance which was only 30.56% in 2020-21. So too with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs which reported only 25.99% disposal of first appeals in 2020-21;
ii) The President’s Secretariat (809 appeals received) and the Election Commission of India (208 appeals received) reported that they had not disposed of any first appeal in 2021-22. Zero disposal rate is highly unlikely as the exercise of deciding first appeals is a time bound process. There might be a problem with the data entry, however, the CIC has not bothered to comment on this performance in its AR;
iii) The PMO reported disposal of only 8.59% of the first appeals received in 2021-22- down from 27.74% reported in 2020-21. The Supreme Court of India disposed of only 2.86% (420 cases) of the first appeals received in 2021-22 though this is an improvement over the 2020-21 disposal of 1.82%. The Cabinet Secretariat disposed of only 4.84% of the first appeals received in 2021-22- a significant decline from the 31.95% disposal reported in 2020-21. The Indian Army also disposed of only 8.14% of the first appeals in 2021-22 but this was better than 6.67% disposal reported in 2020-21;
iv) The UT of Dadra, Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu reported a disposal of 71.43% of the first appeals received in 2021-22- down from 76% in 2020-21;
v) Ministries which showed a significant decline in the rate of first disposal in 2021-22 as compared with the rate noticed in 2020-21 are: Education- 44.74%- down from 47.46%, Labour and Employment- 88.87%- down from 92.50%, Petroleum and Natural Gas- 90.91%- down from 93.07%, Coal- 72.89%- down from 81.64%, External Affairs- 86.33%- down from 88.07%, Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution- 78.84%- down from 83.89%, Power- 46.11%- down from 52.57%, Panchayati Raj- 91.80%- down from 100%, Environment and Forests- 86.41%- down from 91.41%, Ayush- 21.20%- down from 29.50%, Jal Shakti- 79.59%- dwn from 87.5%, Culture- 59.07%- down from 63.11%, Women and Child Development- 78.55%- down from 91.37%, Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises- 35.70%- down from 39.69%, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises- 70.52%- down from 85.82% and Mines- 73.66%- down from 90.96%.

End Note

Since 2012-13, when the CIC started publishing first appeals data, the proportion of first appeals to the number of RTI applications received in every year (not counting the backlog of RTIs carried over from the previous year) has remained below 10%. It was 9.05% that year. It fluctuated between 8 and 9% in subsequent years. It fell to 8.89% in 2020-21 during the first year of the pandemic and further to 8.72% in 2021-22. However, this decline cannot be taken as an indication of improving satisfaction levels with the responses of the CPIOs, as far as RTI applicants are concerned.
In terms of absolute numbers, first appeal submission across various ministries and departments and public authorities under their jurisdiction is the highest ever. Further, the rejections-to-first appeals ratio has also worsened in the last ten years. Both trends indicate high levels of dissatisfaction with the performance of public authorities vis-à-vis responses to RTI applications. RTI applicants do not seem to be satisfied with the quality and/or quantity of information received. This is a cause for concern which unfortunately the CIC has not addressed in its ARs. Nor do the ARs contain any information about the manner of disposal of these first appeals i.e., how many were successful and in how many cases the appellate authority partially or wholly upheld the decision of the CPIO.
If the performance of the public authorities vis-à-vis the implementation of the RTI Act is to be assessed more realistically, the CIC must publish detailed statistics about the manner of disposal of first appeals including the number of times the exemption clauses were applied to reject them. It is hoped that the CIC will pay attention to these matters while compiling the next annual report.
---
*Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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