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Apply, apply, no reply? RTI faces quiet death as CIC is all set to go into 'lockdown mode'

By Rosamma Thomas* 

In September 2023, twenty-four hours after being released by police after 10 days of questioning by Karnataka police in a case of theft of a motorcycle, Muniraju, a 24-year-old villager in Andhra Pradesh, died. 
Karnataka police did not publish details of the arrest on their website, as required by law; when a concerned citizen sought CCTV footage of the police station, that request was stonewalled by the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Nangali Police Station in Kolar district, where the questioning occurred. 
The PIO at first declined the request for footage citing privacy concerns, and later claimed that the cameras were not functioning. The Karnataka Information Commission imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on the PIO, to be deducted from his salary; orders were also issued to submit a report about the compliance with the December 2020 judgment of the Supreme Court seeking functional CCTV cameras in all police stations.
Transparency in the actions of those in authority is one – and usually the surest – way to prevent abuse of power and ensure justice when abuse occurs. In Muniraju’s case, the life that is lost cannot be retrieved; the fact that this was a custodial killing could only be established because of the intervention of one concerned citizen who used the Right to Information Act.
October 12, 2023 marked 18 years since the Right to Information became law. "The Hindu" reported recently that over three lakh appeals and complaints were pending before the information commissions, established under the Right to Information Act, 2005. A release from Press Information Bureau commemorating 18 years of RTI noted that over 3.5 lakh second appeals and complaints had been disposed of by the Central Information Commission (CIC) in these years.
The last Chief Information Commissioner was YK Sinha, whose tenure ended on October 3, 2023. For the fifth time now, since August 2014, the Central Information Commission  is headless. A five-storey building was constructed in Munirka, Delhi, to house the CIC at great expense. 
 Buildings alone, however, do not make institutions. There ought to be at least 10 information commissioners at the CIC; there are currently only four. Even the term of these four will expire in November – will the CIC then go into “lockdown mode”?
Transparency activist Commodore Lokesh Batra says: 
“Unlike courts where acting chief justices are invariably appointed, the RTI Act does not make provision for such appointments. There is no ‘Acting Chief Information Commissioner’. Thus, a vacant position means several administrative and financial decisions remain in limbo.”
There ought to be at least 10 information commissioners at CIC. There are currently only four, and their term will expire in November
On October 6, 2023, in response to an application from Commodore Batra, the Department of Personnel and Training released a list of 80 names of people who had applied for the position of Chief Information Commissioner, four of them marked “late applications”. 
An advertisement seeking applications for the position was issued on August 7. In December 2022, an advertisement was issued for filling vacancies of information commissioners at the CIC – 256 applications were received in response to that advertisement. Yet, the government appears in no hurry to fill vacant positions.
Satark Nagrik Sanghatan, a citizens’group, compiled a report card of the information commissions across the country, and noted that 3,21,537 appeals and complaints are pending, with the backlog rising incessantly. 
Four information commissions – Jharkhand, Telangana, Mizoram and Tripura – are defunct now, as no new information commissioners were appointed once incumbents demitted office. Six information commissions are currently headless, including the Central Information Commission. 
 Relevant information was available for 28 information commissions across the country, and this is what the citizens’ group accessed and analyzed in the report. Using average monthly disposal rate and pendency, the group assessed that West Bengal State Information Commission would take 24 years to dispose a matter, while 10 information commissions would take one year or more. In over 90 per cent of cases where a fine could have been imposed, no fine was imposed.
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*Freelance journalist

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