Huge pendencies at the information commissions, poor selection to no appointment of information commissioners, invoking Digital Personal Data Protection Act (DPDP) were the key concerns as activists observed 18 years of RTI Act on Thursday. The day saw meets and webinars in which activists sounded concerned and also vouched to create jan andolan (peoples movement) to save the Act that has brought out many corruptions.
"The figure 18 itself means a lot in the Indian context. The Act has become an adult which is remarkable. Lokpal collapsed in a year or two," said Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner. Gandhi who has been campaigning about the existential threat the transparency Act faces due to DPDP Act and certain court judgement said that no political power wanted it and court judgements created an irony.
"Political parties fear and want to finish it. In case of court judgements, in the ADR matter which was judged by SC lot before RTI Act came in, the court said that people have the right to know assets of people who looked forward to become public servants and asked them to give details in affidavits. Post RTI, the court in Girish Deshpande case said that people do not have the right to know the assets of public servants. It was a case of being transparent before marriage but not post marriage," quipped Gandhi.
In Maharashtra, pending appeals and complaints continued to be highest in the country and more than one lakh for the second year in a row. "They stand at 1.15 lakh as of December 2022. They did not share details until June 30, which we had sought," said Anjali Bhardwaj, founder of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, which came out with a report on pending cases at the information commissions. Maharashtra, which does not have a chief commissioner for more than a year, is short of four commissioners.
"In the case of the Central Information Commission (CIC), four commissioners are due to retire in November, which would mean that the CIC will come to a complete standstill in some time if commissioners are not appointed," said Amrita Johari, working committee member of National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), which organised a webinar to mark the RTI Act's 18 years. CIC has over 20,000 appeals and complaints pending as on June 30, 2023.
During the webinar, activists from across the country spoke of commissioners looking to deny information or not help applicants. "In Maharashtra, a commissioner has said that if the first appellate authority gives order in favour of an applicant and even after that if the applicant does not get information, he will not take up the second appeal. He is even asking other commissioners to do the same," said Bhaskar Prabhu, a city based activist.
Activists said that in Madhya Pradesh a commissioner had started citing the DPDP Act even though it is yet to be implemented. "The Act has been passed but it is not operational yet. Still the commissioner is citing it to deny information and even asking the government to issue a circular," said the activist. It shines the light on the kind of appointments they have made of information commissioners, rued activists.
They welcomed court orders which asked the governments to come up with a timeline for hybrid hearings. Activists said that while measures were being taken to spread awareness and fight the killing of RTI Act, they said that people's movement was required. "A people's movement is required to fight for RTI which they are trying to kill through the DPDP. We will and should also be looking at the rules of DPDP as and when they are framed. We are also trying to have a RTI museum where the fight for transparency first started," said Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan that fights for grass-root level transparency.