During the first and the second phase of the lockdown imposed by the government to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, CHRI had conducted a Rapid Telephonic Survey of all 29 Information Commissions established under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). While the Central Information Commission (CIC) resumed hearings in appeal and complaint cases from 15th April 2020, its counterparts in the States were not found functional during the first two phases of the lockdown. Please click here to read the findings of the first rapid telephonic survey released on 28th April 2020.
Despite the CIC resuming work mid-April and the findings of CHRI’s survey being published widely across the print and digital media, no information was available in the public domain about the Central Government’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) taking any action to persuade the State Governments to get their respective Information Commissions to reopen. Noticing this absence of resolute action, CHRI wrote a letter requesting DoPT to issue advisories to the State Governments to ensure resumption of work by the State Information Commissions. Click here for the copy of CHRI's letter to DoPT submitted on 28th May 2020 emphasising the indispensable role of Information Commissions during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. Findings from CHRI's second Rapid telephonic survey were attached to this letter as evidence of the non-functioning Information Commissions.
In our second telephonic survey we found out of the 29 Information Commissions under 12 had opened offices, but only 8 were conducting hearings during the third phase of the lockdown ending 17thMay, 2020. Please click here for the findings of CHRI’s second Rapid telephonic survey.
Findings from CHRI’s third Rapid Survey:
During Unlock 1.0 imposed by the government to contain the spread of COVID-19, CHRI surveyed the websites of the State Information Commissions (SICs) and made phone calls to their offices to ascertain their working status. We found, out of the 29 Information Commissions nearly 80% (23 Commissions) had resumed hearings during Unlock1.0 starting on 1st June, 2020.
We continued to track the working of Information Commissions during the Unlock 2.0 phase also as several state governments had imposed local lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19. Once again we surveyed the websites of the State Information Commissions (SICs) and made phone calls to their offices to ascertain whether local lockdowns have affected their work. This time we found, only 44% Information Commissions under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), i.e., 13 out of 29 Commissions were conducting hearings during Unlock 2.0 starting on 1st July.
During the Unlock 1.0 phase, CHRI reached out to the office of 11 SICs because information about their working was not available on their websites. Out of these, phone calls made to the office of SIC of Assam, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura remained unanswered. During Unlock 2.0, phone calls made to the office of SIC of Assam, Manipur and Tamil Nadu remained unanswered.
Six SICs, namely, those of Bihar, Goa, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh are headless. The State Chief Information Commissioner's post has remained vacant for several months in these bodies. Moreover, the SIC of Jharkhand State Information Commissioner’s position is also vacant and they have no Information Commissioner for conducting hearings. The SICs of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh do not have functional websites. They could not be located through any Internet Browser.
Overall, out of total 29 Information Commissions in India, 23 had reopened their office and were conducting hearings during the Unlock 1.0 phase of the crisis. Out of these, 16 Information Commissions were conducting hearings through phone or video calls or using Whatsapp for all cases or only for urgent life and liberty matters. 5 SICs had opened their office for the public and were conducting hearings in person. Information Commissions of 6 states were not conducting hearings and out of these 2 states of Goa and Jharkhand have put up notice on their website regarding adjournment of all hearings. The other 4 State Information Commissions of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura which were not conducting hearings did not have any information about the working status of their SIC on their websites and calls made to their landline numbers were not answered.
During Unlock 2.0, out of total 29 Information Commissions in India, only 13 were conducting hearings. Out of these, only 10 Information Commissions were conducting hearings through phone or video calls or using Whatsapp. 3 SICs have opened their office for public and were conducting hearings in person. Information Commissions of 16 states were not conducting hearings and out of these SIC of 7 states of Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha and Bengal have put up notice on their website regarding adjournment of all hearings. The other 9 State Information Commissions which were not conducting hearings did not have any information in this regard on their websites. Please click here for the survey data from Unlock 1.0 and Unlock 2.0.
Please click here for the latest findings from our website research and attempts to contact each State Information Commission during Unlock 1.0 and Unlock 2.0 phases.
Conclusion and our recommendations:
The challenges posed by the spread of COVID-19 have acted as brakes on the regime of transparency established by the RTI Act. Our third rapid survey of Information Commissions shows that 80% Information Commissions were open in June during Unlock 1.0 and in July it was down to 44% during Unlock 2.0. This shows that most of the Information Commissions across the States could not put sustainable efforts to perform their role as champions of transparency during lockdowns in their states. The State Information Commissions need to address the dilemma between staying open and risking the spread of COVID-19 infection; and remaining closed and not promoting RTI. As the role of Information Commissions during public emergencies is crucial, hearings shall be conducted virtually using smart phone apps or using ordinary phones until in-person hearings are not suitable.
As oversight bodies established under the RTI Act, Information Commissions are the only agency easily accessible to citizens for dealing with complaints of lack of transparency at both micro and macro levels of government action. Given the restrictions on people's movement imposed by the Central or State governments, this is the time to press public authorities to comply with their duty of proactive information disclosure emphasised under Section 4 of the RTI Act. The precautionary guidelines related to physical distancing are likely to be followed for a much longer period. Therefore, it is important for the SICs to establish a citizen-friendly mechanism for receiving complaints and appeals from people about government action at the State, district, tehsil or even village level. In order to do this, it is also necessary for them to devise sustainable measures for conducting hearings. They need to be open to addressing even verbal complaints at various levels of the administration via phone calls or video calls and advertise widely that they have resumed hearings in their Commission. All SICs shall immediately adapt to suitable solutions of technology and perform their role as autonomous bodies for monitoring transparency of public authorities as this is needed the most in the course of the current crisis.
CHRI's Trail of Inquiry: CHRI 3rd rapid survey report on working status of ICs | CHRI Rapid Survey data-status of ICs-31July2020