Findings from a preliminary study of the Central Information Commission's latest Annual Report on the implementation of the RTI Act (2019-20)
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Mar 25, 2021
By: Venkatesh Nayak
The Annual Report of the Central Information Commission (CIC) for the year 2019-2020 is out in the public domain. Readers will recall, presenting such a report to Parliament about the action taken by public authorities every year, to implement this transparency law, is a mandate under Section 25 of The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). As always, the CIC has kept the public disclosure of its latest Annual Report, a quiet affair.
We have undertaken a preliminary review of this Annual Report. A set of our preliminary findings is given below. Many of these findings are not immediately apparent to the reader of the narrative portion of the Annual Report which the CIC has kept very brief. These findings are based on a quick analysis of the detailed dataset contained in the Annexures to the Report and comparable data collated from previous Annual Reports of the CIC. This preliminary review covers the following areas:
- Trends relating to RTI requests in 2019-20, dealt with by the Central Government, specific Ministries, and key public authorities that are likely to be of interest to the reader;
- Trends with regard to the backlog of RTI applications at the beginning of the reporting year;
- Trends relating to the transfer of RTI applications from one Ministry to another;
- Trends with regard to the rejection of RTI requests on grounds which are permissible under the law and on “Other” grounds;
- Trends relating to the receipt and disposal of first appeals by ministries, departments and key public authorities under review; and
- What the CIC could consider including in Annual Reports about its own work and the necessity of conducting data verification exercises.
Caveat and Assumption
As the CIC’s Annual Report covers more than 2,000 public authorities across the Government of India (GoI), not to mention scores of others under the Union Territory administrations in Chandigarh, Delhi and Puducherry, this preliminary review looks only at the macro-level figures reported by Ministries, a couple of standalone departments, a handful of key constitutional authorities and select public authorities (total under review = 65). So Ministry and Department-level data cover not just their own figures but also those of hundreds of public authorities that fall under their jurisdiction. A more detailed analysis of RTI data reported by other Departments and public authorities not specified in this preliminary review will be taken up later on.
The findings given below are correct to the extent of the accuracy of the data reported by the public authorities. However, it will also be shown below that some of the figures reported are not questionable.
Click here for the data table collated for the purpose of this preliminary review.
Conversion rate: 1 lakh = 100,000; 10 lakhs = 1 million
RTI applications in 2019-20: Overall GoI and Ministry-specific trends
- Missing public authorities: In its Annual Report of 2019-20, the CIC acknowledges the existence of 2,193 public authorities [which answer to the definition of that term given under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act]. This is an all-time high. However, only 2,131 of them submitted RTI statistics to the CIC. Reporting compliance is 97.17% in 2019-2020 as compared to 100% in the previous year when all 2,145 registered public authorities submitted data to the CIC. Nevertheless, according to the RTI Online Facility established by GoI for citizens to submit RTI applications electronically, there are 2,389 public authorities registered as on date. This indicates, at least 196 public authorities which accept RTIs submitted through the RTI Online Facility have not yet registered themselves with the CIC for the purpose of annual reporting of RTI statistics;
- Fresh receipts rise overall: Despite fewer public authorities submitting their data, fresh RTI receipts across GoI increased by 0.3% to 13.74 lakhs in 2019-20 as compared to 13.70 lakh fresh receipts reported in 2018-19;
- If the RTI figures reported by the administration of the Union Territories are deducted from the total, ministries, departments and other public authorities under GoI clocked only 12.39 lakh RTI applications in 2019-20. This is 2.21% more than the 12.12 lakh RTIs submitted to GoI (minus those submitted to the UTs) in 2018-19;
- Volume of RTIs in top 20 and top 10 Ministries: Table 2.6 on page 19 of the Annual Report provides the list of top 20 Ministries that received the largest number of RTI applications. The Ministries of Finance, Railways, Communications, Human Resource Development, Corporate Affairs, Labour and Employment, Defence, Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Home Affairs and Road Transport and Highway;
- Taken together, public authorities under the top 20 Ministries (excluding the UTs of Delhi and Chandigarh) accounted for more than 87% of the RTI applications filed across GoI. If only the top 10 are taken into consideration (excluding the UT of Delhi), they account for more than 75% of the volume of RTI applications submitted across GoI;
- Decline in fresh RTIs across key Ministries: What the CIC’s Annual Report does not tell the reader is how these Ministries have fared in comparison with past performance. For example, despite being the highest grosser of RTI applications at 1.92 lakhs in 2019-20, the Ministry of Finance (including Banks, insurance companies, tax authorities, debt recovery tribunals etc.) actually received almost 9% fewer RTIs as compared to 2018-19 (2.11 lakhs). Similarly, the Ministry of Communications reported a decline of 16.5% in 2019-20 (1.22 lakhs) over the previous year (1.47 lakhs). Similarly, the Ministry of Home Affairs reported a decline of 22.30% in 2019-20 (44,453) as compared with the figures reported in 2018-19 (57,208). The Ministry of Defence reported a decline of 16.34% in 2019-20 (70,934) as compared with the previous year (84,796). The Ministry of Labour and Employment reported a decline of 2.89% in 2019-20 (80,978) as compared with the previous year (83,389). Strangely, this significant fall in numbers has not merited any discussion in the Annual Report regarding the probable cause;
- The total number of RTIs received by various public authorities in the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) also declined by more than 16% in 2019-20 (1,08,009) as compared with the previous year (1,28,629). Similarly, the Delhi Police reported a decline of more than 11% in RTIs received in 2019-20 (25,890) as compared with the previous year (29,161). Nothing in the CIC’s Annual Report indicates that it examined the probable causes behind this decline while compiling it;
- Significant rise in fresh RTIs in some Ministries: Despite being placed at #6 on the top-20 list, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs reported the sharpest hike of more than 622% in the number of RTIs received in 2019-20 (83,602) as compared to the previous year (19,956). Similarly the Ministry of Human Resource Development reported a rise of 27.28% in 2019-20 (50,887) over the previous year (39,979). The Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions which is the nodal Ministry for the implementation of the RTI Act in GoI reported a rise of 19.56% in 2019-20 (65,234) over the previous year (54,559). The Ministry of Railways reported a rise of 13.65% in RTI applications received in 2019-20 (1.41 lakhs) as compared with the previous year (1.25 lakhs). Strangely, this phenomenon of rise in numbers has not merited any discussion in the Annual Report regarding the probable causes;
- Near absence of J&K from the Annual Report: Even though the Department of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Ladakh Affairs was created in the Ministry of Home Affairs by amending the Allocation of Business Rules, 1961 on 31 October, 2019, there is no mention of the RTI data from this Department. Although the Central RTI Act became applicable to J&K and Ladakh from that date, the Annual Report does not contain any RTI statistics about the manner of use of this law in those jurisdictions except in the Central Universities of Jammu and Kashmir. However, the Annual Report contains RTI use statistics from other UTs (with the exception of Dadra and Nagarhaveli).
Backlog of RTI applications in 2019-20: Overall GoI and Ministry-specific trends
- Increase in backlog from 2018-29: Every public authority reports the number of RTIs that remained pending from the previous year which got carried over to the current reporting year for disposal. Overall, there was an increase of more than 19% in the backlog of pending RTI applications across public authorities in GoI (including UTs) in 2019-20 (3,10,110) as compared with the previous year (2,59,919). Nothing in the Annual Report indicates that the CIC has probed the reasons behind the rise in the backlog of RTI applications;
- Interestingly, the Ministry of Defence reported the highest backlog at 1.15 lakhs of which the Indian Army contributed more than 93%;
- The 199 public authorities under the Ministry of Human Resource Development accounted for more than 50,000 of the backlog RTIs pending at the beginning of 2019-20. In comparison the 188 public authorities under the Ministry of Finance reported only a fraction of this figure- only 9,697 RTIs were pending at the beginning of 2019-20;
- More than 43% (4,187) of the total number of RTIs (9,607) that were handled by the Indian Air Force in 2019-20 constituted the backlog carried over from 2018-19; and
- Taken together, the Ministries of Defence, Human Resource Development, Housing and Urban Affairs, Railways, Labour and Employment, Road Transport, Communications and GNCTD accounted for more than 85% of the backlog of RTIs reported by GoI in 2019-20;
- Lesser backlog in these Ministries: Only three Ministries namely, Food Processing, Panchayai Raj and Parliamentary Affairs did not have any backlog of RTI applications from 2018-19. With 85 pending RTIs from 2018-19, the Ministry for the Development of Northeastern Region had the lowest backlog figures amongst all Ministries. Among other key public authorities, the Cabinet Secretariat had the lowest figure of 5 pending RTIs followed by the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Office with 15, carried over from 2018-19.
Interestingly, the phenomenon of rising backlog of RTIs does not even merit a cursory mention let alone a discussion in the narrative portion of the Annual Report.
Transfer of RTI applications in 2019-20: Overall GoI and Ministry-specific trends
- Reduction in transfer of RTIs: Fewer RTI applications were transferred across public authorities under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act, in 2019-20. Only 10.86% (1.82 lakhs) of them were transferred in 2019-20 as compared to 11.41% (1.86 lakhs) during the previous year. It is laudable that these figures have come down from the all time high of 14.46% reported in 2014-15;
- Largest number of transfers: The Ministry of Railways topped the list transferring more than 25,000 RTI applications in 2019-20 followed by the Ministry of Finance taking 2nd place with 24,534 transfers, the Ministry of Defence taking 3rd place with 19,852 transfers, the Ministry of Communications taking 4th place with 13,086 transfers and the Ministry of Human Resource Development at 5th place with 8,258 transfers;
- Least number of transfers: The Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region transferred the least number of RTIs (24). The Ministries of Textiles (26), Earth Sciences (50), Tribal Affairs (64) and Steel (99) make up the bottom 5 in terms of the number of transfers of RTI applications reported to the CIC;
- Transfers from the PMO: Contrary to the overall trend, one out of every three RTIs (i.e., 33.06%) of the fresh RTIs were transferred out of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in 2019-20. If transfers are considered as a proportion of the total volume of RTI applications pending disposal in 2019-20 (i.e., including backlog) the figure is reduced to a little above 30%;
- Transfers in GNCTD: Similarly, public authorities under GNCTD reported transfer of more than 25% of the RTI applications in 2019-20 if only the fresh submissions are considered. The figure declines to 20% if the backlog from 2018-19 is taken into consideration;
Rejection of RTI applications in 2019-20: Overall GoI and Ministry-specific trends
- What the Annual Report says: At paragraph 2.4.1 of its report (page 14), the Annual Reports states, the percentage of rejection of RTI requests by public authorities is the lowest since the inception of the CIC. However a deeper probing of the Ministry-wise data tables presented in Annexure 1 presents a more worrisome picture and also two major questions about the claims made in the report;
- Macro versus micro figures- problems with data quality: First, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) which reported a rejection of 20% of the RTI applications in 2019-20 (across the 29 reporting public authorities under its jurisdiction) – much higher than the average figure for GoI, simply does not gel with the absolute numbers mentioned in the data tables given at Annexure 1. If the number of RTIs rejected under Sections, 8, 9, 11, 24 and the category- “Others” (a problem which we will discuss in detail in the next section) are taken together as a percentage of the total number of RTIs (backlog plus fresh receipts) the figure declines to 19.39%. If rejections are taken as a percentage of fresh receipts only in 2019-20, they constitute 20.29%. If the RTIs that were transferred out of the MHA are deducted, the percentage increases to 21.60%. If the number of RTIs rejected under ‘Others” category is discarded from the counting and only the permissible exemptions under Sections 8, 9, 11 and 24 are taken into consideration, the percentage falls to 17.81% (as a proportion of the total RTIs, i.e., backlog and fresh receipts). If the rejections under permissible exemptions are counted as a percentage of fresh receipts, the figure becomes 18.63%. If the rejections under permissible exemptions are taken as a proportion of the total number of RTIs (backlog plus fresh receipts) minus those RTIs which were transferred out under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act, the figure becomes 18.90%. If the rejections under permissible exemptions are taken as a percentage of fresh RTIs received in 2019-20 minus those which were transferred out, the figure becomes 19.83%. So in none of these scenarios is the reported figure of 20% calculable. The CIC needs to explain the manner in which it counts the rejections for the reported figure to become more convincing;
- Second, a doubt about the accurateness of the total figures presented in the Annual Report must be raised on genuine grounds. For example, the total number of times the exemption under Section 8(1)(c) relating to breach of parliamentary privilege was invoked is given as 65 at the end of the tabulated data in Annexure 1. However Ministry-wise calculation of the number of times this exemption was invoked totals up to 118 cases. So unless the spreadsheet containing the entire data table is placed in the public domain doubts about various calculations and totals specified in the Annual Report will remain in doubt.
- Caveat: It must also be pointed at the outset- the statistics highlighted in this section pertain to the invoking of exemptions permissible under Sections 8, 9, 11 and 24 of the RTI Act. Data pertaining to rejections under the dubious category of “Others” is dealt with in the next section. So there will be a difference between the findings presented in this section and the data presented in the CIC’s Annual Report which combines all these categories while calculating the total number/percentage of rejections;
- Ministries with higher than overall rejection percentage: The Ministries of Power (11%), Shipping (9%), Women and Child Development and Information Technology (8% each), Food Processing, Chemicals and Fertilisers, Mines, Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises and Textiles (7% each) reported a higher rejection rate than the average figure mentioned for GoI as a whole;
- Increasing rejections: Interestingly, the percentage of RTIs rejected by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare doubled to 4% in 2019-20 as compared to the 2% reported in 2018-19. The rejection rate of Delhi Police has also gone up by 1% in 2019-20 as compared to the previous year even though it reported an 11% decline in the number of RTI applications received. The rejection percentage reported by the Indian Army has increased to 5% in 2019-20 as compared with 3% in 2018-19;
- Nil rejections: The Ministries of Parliamentary Affairs and Skill Development and Entrepreneurship and the Election Commission of India did not report any rejections in 2019-20;
Frequency of invoking permissible exemption clauses in 2019-20: Overall GoI and Ministry-specific trends
- Permissible grounds for rejection under the RTI Act: The RTI Act permits a public authority to reject access to information under any of the 10 clauses listed under Section 8 of the RTI Act, Section 9 which protects private copyright, Section 11 which exempts third party information relating to commercial and trade secrets and Section 24 under which security and intelligence. Till date, GoI has notified 26 intelligence and security agencies such as the IB, NTRO, R&AW, CBI, NIA, Enforcement Directorate, Assam Rifles, ITBP, CRPF, CISF under Section 24(1) of the RTI Act; organisations are partially excluded from the ordinary obligations of transparency. However, they are required to disclose information pertaining to allegations of corruption. They are also required to disclose information relating to allegations of human rights violation within 45 days with the approval of the CIC;
- Section 8(1)(j): As has been the case every year, Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act is the most frequently invoked of permissible exemptions across GoI in 2019-20. One in every 3 RTIs was rejected on the basis of this exemption during this period. Section 8(1)(j) permits denial of access to personal information if disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or public interest or is likely to cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual concerned. However, as compared with the frequency of use in 2018-19 (34.28%) there is a slight decrease (34.05%) in the use of this exemption in 2019-20. The use of this exemption was highest (37.06%) in 2011-12;
- Amongst all Ministries under GoI, public authorities under the Ministry of Finance invoked Section 8(1)(j) the most number of times (7,528 instances or 41.99% of the total number of rejections) to reject RTI applications in 2019-20. Public authorities under the Ministry of Defence invoked this provision in more than a third of rejections (755 instances or 37.44%) and the Department of Atomic Energy (168 cases) which invoked this exemption to reject 1 of every 2 RTIs (50.76%);
- Among Ministries and key public authorities which rejected more than 200 RTIs by invoking permissible exemptions, Section 8(1)(j) of the Act was most frequently used by the following: Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (93.54%), Ministry of Human Resource Development (65.68%), Ministry of Coal (49.41%), Ministry of Power (42.16%), Ministry of Communications (40.13%), Ministry of Defence (37.43%), Supreme Court of India (37.27%), Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (36.82%), Delhi Police (36.05%) and Ministry of Railways (23.8%);
- Use of Section 8(1)(j) in GNCTD: Public authorities under GNCTD rejected 1 out of every 2 RTI applications (52.61%) by invoking Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act;
- Section 24: Section 24 is the 2nd most frequently invoked of permissible exemptions across GoI. One in every 5 RTIs (22.34%) was rejected under this provision in 2019-20- a significant increase from 20.29% reported in 2018-19;
- Taken together, Sections 8(1)(j) and 24 accounted for more than half (56.39%) of the RTIs rejected under permissible exemptions in 2019-20 (excluding rejections under "Others" category). This is the highest percentage of use of both exemptions since 2005 across GoI. In 2018-19 this proportion was 54.57%;
- Strangely, the Ministry of Labour and Employment rejected 150 RTIs (40% of the total number rejected by invoking permissible exemptions) under Section 24 of the Act in 2019-20. This Ministry does not have any organisation excluded under Section 24 of the RTI Act under its jurisdiction. Yet, there is no discussion on this subject in the Annual Report;
- Section 8(1)(d): Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act which protects information in the nature of commercial confidence and intellectual property rights where disclosure is likely to harm the competitive position of a third party is the 3rd most frequently invoked of exemptions in 2019-20. 13.63% of the rejections were under this exemption across GoI;
- Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance invoked Section 8(1)(d) of the Act to reject 1 of every 5 RTI applications (22.25%) in 2019-20. Public authorities under the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas invoked this clause to reject 1 of every 3 RTI applications (35.04%) during this period. 12% of the rejections under permissible exemptions were issued by the Ministry of Communications;
- Section 8(1)(e): Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act exempts the disclosure of information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship. These are trust based relationships like those between a lawyer and client or a doctor and patient or the managers of an orphanage and the wards they look after. This was the 4th most frequently invoked of exemptions accounting for 12.68% of the total number of RTIs rejected in 2019-20. The use of this exemption has hovered around 12% since 2017-18;
- The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare rejected 48% of the RTIs by invoking Section 8(1)(e). The President’s Secretariat invoked this exemption in 35.41% of cases while the Supreme Court of India invoked it in 30% of cases for rejecting RTIs;
- In the matter of Reserve Bank of India vs Jayantilal Mistry & Ors [(2016) 3SCC 525] the Supreme Court of India had ruled that the protection of Section 8(1)(e) is not ordinarily available to a government servant while performing official tasks. Nevertheless the high proportion of use of this exemption by a handful of Ministries including the same Apex Court’s CPIO does not even merit a discussion in the Annual Report;
- Section 8(1)(h): This provision which protects investigations, prosecutions and actions taken to arrest offenders from being adversely affected by information disclosure was the 5th most frequently used of exemptions in 2019-20. Public authorities across GoI invoked it in more than 7% of the cases. Even though only 12,692 cases of invoking this exemption were recorded in 2019-20 as against the high of 16,321 cases the previous year, the proportion of its use has increased from 5.7% to 7.18% in 2019-20;
- Although public authorities under the Ministry of Finance invoked Section 8(1)(h) the most frequently in terms of absolute numbers (798 cases) this accounts for only 4.45% of the total volume of rejections issued followed by public authorities under the Ministry of Home Affairs (686 cases, 8.28%) and the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (198 cases, 15.37%);
- However in terms of percentages, Section 8(1)(h) was invoked in almost 40% of the cases for rejecting RTI by the public authorities under the Ministry of Shipping followed by Delhi Police (680 cases, 38.24%) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (57 cases, 30.97%);
- Section 8(1)(g): This clause exempts the disclosure of information which would endanger the life and safety of an individual or reveal the source of confidential information supplied to law enforcement agencies. Public authorities across GoI invoked it in more than 2.48% (943 cases) of the cases. The proportion of its use has increased from 1.73% (824 instances) in 2018-19;
- Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance used Section 8(1)(g) the most number of times (378 cases, 2.11%) as compared with others, in 2019-20, followed by public authorities under the Ministry of Home Affairs (378 cases, 2.02%) and those under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (81 cases, 6.29%);
- Section 8(1)(i): This clause exempts the disclosure of matters pertaining to Cabinet papers including the related deliberations of Secretaries and other officers until a decision is taken and the matter is complete or over. Public authorities across GoI invoked it in more than 1.28% (695 instances) of the cases. The proportion of its use has decreased from 2.44% (1,165 instances) in 2018-19 which is a reduction of more than 40%;
- Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance used Section 8(1)(i) more frequently than others in 2019-20 (394 cases, 2.19%) followed by the Cabinet Secretariat which invoked this exemption to reject 1 of every 3 cases (37.88%) and those under the Ministry of Personnel Public Grievances and Pensions (110 cases, 8.54%);
- Section 8(1)(a): This exemption prevents the disclosure of information on seven grounds such as if the sovereignty and territorial integrity, security, defence, economic, strategic and scientific interests of the State or foreign relations will be prejudicially affected. Public authorities across GoI invoked it in more than 1.46% (557 instances) of the cases. The proportion of its use has decreased from 2.44% (1,162 instances) in 2018-19 which is a reduction of more than 52%;
- Public authorities under the Ministry of Defence used Section 8(1)(a) more often (157 cases, 7.7%) than others followed by those under the Ministry of Finance (141 cases, 0.78%). The Indian Air Force rejected invoked this exemption in 107 cases (31.75%);
- Section 8(1)(f): This provision exempts the disclosure of information received in confidence from foreign governments. The use of this provision has fallen by 44% in 2019-20 (418 cases) as compared with the figure in 2018-19 (749 cases). Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance invoked this exemption more often than others (214 cases) followed by those under the Ministry of Labour and Employment (50 cases), those under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (33 cases) and the Delhi Police (31 cases) in 2019-20;
- Section 8(1)(b): This provision exempts the disclosure of information on grounds of contempt of court or if there is a specific order of a court or tribunal against the disclosure of certain categories of information. The use of this exemption increased by 35% in 2019-20 as compared to the previous year. The Supreme Court of India invoked this exemption to reject 1 of every 3 RTIs submitted to it in 2019-20 (97 cases). The Delhi High Court did not invoke this exemption even once. Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance invoked this exemption in 60 instances (0.33%);
- Section 8(1)(c): This provision exempts the disclosure of information if it will cause breach of privilege of Parliament and State Legislatures. It was invoked in at least 118 cases (unlike the "Grand Total" of 65 cases presented at the end of the data table in Annexure 1 at page 178 of the Annual Report). Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance invoked Section 8(1)(c) more often than others (36 cases) followed by those under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions in 20 cases in 2019-20;
- Section 9: The use of Section 9 which exempts disclosure of information on grounds of copyright held by private persons (258 cases) is the lowest in 2019-20 since 2011-12 (214 cases). Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance used this exemption more frequently than others to reject RTI applications (94 cases) followed by those under the Ministry of Home Affairs (54 cases) and the Ministry of Defence (50 cases). All 54 cases of rejection under the MHA were reported by the Delhi Police whereas 48.94% of the use of this exemption in the Ministry of Defence was reported by the Indian Army;
- Section 11: The use of Section 11 which protects commercial or trade secrets from disclosure has almost halved (49.07%) in 2019-20 (717 cases) as compared with 2018-29 (1408 cases). Public authorities under the Ministry of Finance used this provision more frequently than others to reject RTI applications (182 cases) followed by those under the Ministry of Defence (156 cases), Ministry of Labour and Employment (81 cases) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (65 cases). The Delhi Police accounted for 64 of the cases reported by the MHA;
- Section 8(2): As always, the Annual Report does not contain any data about the number of instances in which information was disclosed under Section 8(2) of the RTI Act despite it being covered by the permissible exemptions.
Rejection of RTI applications under “Others” Category
- As explained above, according to Section 7(1) of the RTI Act, a public information officer may reject an RTI application only for reasons specified under Section 8 and 9. To this list of 11 clauses may be added Sections 11 and 24 which also create valid grounds for refusing access to information under specific circumstances. No other reason or excuse is permissible for rejecting under the RTI Act. However, ever since the enforcement of the RTI Act public authorities under various ministries and departments have been collecting data about rejections under the dubious category- “Others.” The CIC includes this data in its Annual Report without questioning its validity except once. Taking note of this phenomenon in its Annual Report in 2010-11 the CIC held as follows:
“The usage of reasons, termed as ‘others’, in such increasing proportion is inter alia also indicative of the fact that perhaps the requested information is not available in any material form as per definition of “Information” in the Act. This call for scrutiny and closer introspection by public authorities to “ascertain and identify” the provisions other than those in sections 8(1), 9, 11 and 24 being used for rejecting the requested information; since there are no other exemption clauses stipulated in the Act for rejecting a request for information.”
However the CIC has not commented much on this issue subsequently. This silence continues in the Annual Report of 2019-20 as well.
- Increase in rejections under "Others" category: The phenomenon of rejecting RTIs under “Others” category has increased in 2019-20. Public authorities across GoI rejected 38.70% of the RTIs under “Others” category in 2019-20. This proportion is up from 33.25% in 2018-19;
- Highest frequency of use of "Others" category: In terms of absolute numbers, public authorities under the Ministry of Finance rejected RTIs under “Others” category in 10,081 cases (almost 40%) followed by the Ministry of Labour and Employment in 1,871 cases (83.56%). Those under the Ministry of Defence rejected under RTIs under this category in 1,694 cases (45.59%) whereas those under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension rejected RTIs on this basis in 633 cases (32.95%);
- In terms of percentages, 100% of the rejections were issued by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (36 cases) and the Ministry of Food Processing (23 cases) by invoking “Others” category. More than 95% of the rejections issued by the Ministry of Railways was in the “Others” category. The Delhi High Court also used this excuse in more than 92% of the cases (172 RTIs) and the PMO in 90% of the cases (550 RTIs), and the Comptroller and Auditor General in more than 90% of the cases (108 RTIs). Public authorities under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways rejected more than 94% of the RTIs (163) under “Others” category followed by the Ministry of Power in more than 88% of the cases (769) the Ministry of Law and Justice in 83.50% of the cases (339) and the Ministry of Corporate Affairs in 61.24% (237) of the cases;
- Significant rise in the use of "Others" category over previous year: The phenomenon of using exemptions other than those permissible under the RTI Act have risen majorly in the following Ministries (inclusive of public authorities under their jurisdiction): Railways- up from more than 52% in 2018-19; Defence- up from 36% in 2018-19 to more than 45% in 2019-20; External Affairs- up from 16.87% in 2018-19 to 23.5% in 2019-20, Indian Army – up from 21% in 2018-19 to 44% in 2019-20 and Delhi Police- up from 16.5% in 2018-19 to more than 24% in 2019-20;
- Use of "Others" category in GNCTD: Public authorities in the GNCTD rejected 2 of every 3 RTIs (67.78%) under “Others” category in 2019-20 as compared to around 30% in 2018-19;
- Non-use and less use of "Others" category in these key public authorities and Ministries: The President’s Secretariat, and the Cabinet Secretariat did not reject any RTI under “Others” category in 2019-20. Nor did the Ministry for the Development of Northeastern Region, nor the Ministry of Ayush or the CIC reject any RTI application under this category. Use of these dubious grounds has fallen among public authorities under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (down from 37% to 33%) in 2019-20 as compared with the previous year.
First appeals in 2019-20: Overall GoI and Ministry-specific trends
- What the Annual Report says: At paragraphs 2.6 and 2.7 (pages 21-22), the Annual Report briefly discusses data about the submission of 1st appeals under Section 19(1) of the RTI Act. Table 2.8 provides a list of top-20 Ministries and public authorities in which the maximum number of RTIs resulted in first appeals being filed by aggrieved citizens. The Ministry of Defence tops the list with 20.26% of the RTIs being escalated to the stage of 1st appeals followed by the Ministries of Housing and Urban Affairs (19.77%), Human Resource Development (19.09%), Home Affairs (16.49%) and Coal (15.27%). Table 2.8 also provides the number of cases which escalated to the CIC as second appeals, but there is no detailed discussion in the Annual Report. There is no discussion about the proportion of 1st appeals disposed by these Ministries and public authorities;
- High proportion of 1st appeal escalation: In fact, a closer examination of the data relating to RTI applications escalating to 1st appeals presented in the data tables at Annexure 1 shows a more worrisome picture. For example, the highest rate of escalation of RTI applications to the first appeal stage among the 65 ministries, departments and key public authorities which we have reviewed is recorded by the Indian Army at 50.48%. In other words every second RTI application got escalated to the 1st appeal stage in 2019-20. The escalation percentage for Delhi Police was 21.68%- much higher than the topmost of the top-20 noted in the Annual Report;
- Although the following Departments did not process very high number of RTI applications and were therefore left out of the CIC’s top-20 list) they reported significantly high proportion of RTIs being escalated to 1st appeal stage- Department of Atomic Energy (17.29%), Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (16.26%) and the President’s Secretariat (15.42%), Ministry of Steel (14.59%) the Indian Air Force (13.83%) and the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (13.32%);
- Disposal of 1st appeals: Despite the data tables at Annexure 1 of the Annual Report displaying statistics relating to the disposal of 1st appeals across ministries, departments and public authorities, the narrative portion is silent on this issue. Our findings from the review regarding the proportion of 1st appeals disposed are given below:
- Zero 1st appeal disposal: Strangely, the President’s Secretariat reported zero disposal of 1st appeals (531 cases) in 2019-20. It is not clear whether this is an anomaly created by faulty data entry or if the FAA simply did not decide any 1st appeal matter brought before him;
- Lowest 1st appeal disposals: The Supreme Court of India reported the lowest percentage of disposal of 1st appeals in 2019-20 at 2.56% (11 out of 429 cases) followed by the Election Commission of India at 6.84% (18 out of 263 cases). It may be recalled here, the ECI reported a 0% rejection rate during this period. The Indian Army (761 out of 9,286 cases- 8.19%) and the PMO (140 out of 1,576 cases) reported a disposal rate of 8% or slightly more during this period;
- Highest 1st appeal disposals: The Ministries of Parliamentary Affairs (4 cases), Development of Northeastern Region (8 cases) and Food Processing (11 cases) reported 100% disposal of 1st appeals. The Delhi Police reported more disposals (5,975 cases) than receipts (5,613 cases) in 2019-20 which is perhaps indicative of 1st appeals that were carried over from 2018-19 to the next year;
- NITI Aayog (96.15%) and the Ministries of Civil Aviation (95.63%), External Affairs (93.18%), Social Justice and Empowerment (92.70%), Labour and Employment (92.38%), Tribal Affairs (91.80%) and Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution (90.47%) all reported a disposal of more than 90% of the 1st appeal cases they received in 2019-20. The remaining ministries and departments disposed between 20-88% of the 1st appeal cases they received in 2019-20.
Disposals by the CIC in 2019-20: What is missing from the Annual Report
- What the Annual Report says: At paragraph 3.2.2 of the Annual Report (page 28), the CIC gives summary figures regarding the receipt, disposal and pendency of 2nd appeals and complaints during 2019-20. The CIC received 22,243 appeals and complaints during this period. It was able to dispose of 75.16% of these cases (16,720 cases) by the end of the reporting year with a backlog of 5,523 cases carried over to 2020-21. As on 23/03/2021 this pendency had risen to 38,492 cases (32,943 appeals and 5,549 complaints);
- Penalties- imposition and recovery: The CIC also states that it had imposed Rs. 10,62,000 in penalties of which Rs. 6,40,500 (i.e., 60.31%) is said to have been recovered from the errant CPIOs;
- What is missing from the Annual Report: However several crucial aspects pertaining to the details of working of the CIC are not found in the Annual Report. Some of them are listed below:
a) Ministry and department-wise 2nd appeals and complaints received and disposed;
b) Public authority-wise 2nd appeals and complaints received and disposed;
c) The number of cases in which the appeals and complaints were allowed and the information directed to be disclosed;
d) The number of cases in which appeals and complaints were rejected and the reasons for such rejection;
e) The number of instances in which the CIC directed the disclosure of exempt information by invoking larger public interest under Section 8(2) of the RTI Act;
f) The number of instances in which the CIC recommended disciplinary action against CPIOs for repeated contraventions of the provisions of the RTI Act;
g) The number of instances in which recommendations were issued to public authorities to improve their compliance with various provisions of the RTI Act under Section 25;
h) The number of instances in which penalties were not imposed on the CPIOs despite issuing show-cause notices;
i) The number if instances in which the CIC awarded compensation to the appellant/complainant under Section 19(8)(b) of the RTI Act; and
i) Summaries of decisions which the CIC considers to be landmark in nature issued during the year.
In the absence of such information and data, the Annual Report does not throw enough light on the working of the CIC itself to make it more transparent. Several State Information Commissions publish this kind of data in their annual reports. The CIC could adopt such good practices the next reporting cycle onwards.
Apart from filling up information gaps regarding its own performance, the reliability of the data contained in the Annual Report requires deep examination by the CIC. Two problematic areas in the dataset relating to rejections have been discussed above. Another area of concern is what appears to be absence of cross-checking of the data submitted by the public authorities. For example, the data table shows “0” as the figure in the rows relating to the number of CPIOs and First Appellate Authorities appointed by public authorities such as the President’s Secretariat and the PMO. Obviously this is erroneous in view of the fact that these public authorities have submitted data regarding the disposal of RTIs and appeals they processed. Next, in several places the detailed data table in Annexure 1 shows 0% as the percentage of rejections reported by some public authorities. However the exemption-wise details provided further down below falsify this figure. For example, The Ministry of Minority Affairs records 7 cases where exemptions were invoked to reject RTIs but the overall percentage is shown as “0”. Similarly, NITI Aayog rejected 26 RTIs but the percentage is shown as “0”. The Ministry of Road Transport also shows the rejection percentage as “0” right next to the absolute figure of 137. Even this figure is incorrect as the total number of cases is 172 if the exemption-wise breakups are taken into consideration.
Or take the case of the Ministry of Shipping. The Annual Report records a rejection of 314 cases at 9% of the total (including “Others” category). However the exemption-wise break-up given at the bottom of the data table adds up to only 254 rejections. So the percentage will actually be 4.18%, not 9%. In the case of the Tribal Affairs Ministry the Annual Report states the total number of rejections as “5”, but the exemption-wise break-up contains the value of “0” against every clause.
In yet another instance, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj reported the appointment of 10 CPIOs but 33 First Appellate Authorities in 2019-20. According to Section 19(1) of the RTI Act a person senior in rank to the CPIO is required to be designated the FAA. The usual practice in public authorities is to have as many FAAs as there may be CPIOs or appoint one FAA to hear appeals against the decisions of multiple CPIOs. The Ministry of Panchayati Raj is one of the instances we have come across where FAAs outnumber CPIOs. How do they exercise jurisdiction over CPIOs requires closer examination by the CIC, unless the data submitted by the Ministry itself is erroneous.
The Annual Report is an official document that has been presented in Parliament and any Member could raise objections about the veracity of the data and accuse the Government of committing breach of privilege by tabling erroneous statistics (assuming that some of them spare the time to read the report in as much detail as is necessary for a body that is tasked with exercising oversight on the manner of implementation of the RTI Act across GoI and also the performance of the CIC). Given the anomalies visible in the data table attached to the Annual Report, it is advisable for the CIC to pay a lot more attention to the quality of the statistics submitted by the public authorities before publishing them in its Annual Report.
(I would like to thank Ms. Adya Bajpai of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences and Mr. Arnav Mittal of Symbiosis Law School, Pune who interned with CHRI during the COVID-19 lockdown period in 2020 for assisting with the data collation and cross checking exercises pertaining to the CIC’s previous Annual Reports.)
All facts are in the public domain. Views expressed are personal.
CHRI's Trail of Inquiry: CIC AR 2019 20 Dataset Mar21