Is transparency a burden on public authorities: Findings from a study of Central Government data as RTI completes 15 years
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May 12, 2020
By: Venkatesh Nayak
Even as we cope with pressures of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, The Right to Information Act (RTI Act) is quietly turning 16. Parliament gave its approval to the Right to Information Bill, on this day (12th May, 2005),15 years ago. The then United Progressive Alliance Government piloted the Bill, crafted by civil society actors, to reflect the aspirations of the people at the grassroots level for greater transparency and accountability in the administration. It would be another month (21 June, 2005) before the Bill is signed into law by the President of India. None of us had any inkling then, that a time would come when an invisible virus would prevent most people from exercising their fundamental right to know under this enabling law.
There are reports in the media that the Central Information Commission (CIC) has written to the Central Government seeking exclusion of the lockdown period from the statutory deadlines for responding to information requests and deciding first and second appeals under the Act. A copy of this communication is not yet available in the public domain. There is a short reference to this issue in the minutes of the CIC's meeting, held on 07 April, 2020. The CIC's reported move has fueled debate within the RTI activist fraternity. Some advocates of transparency are apprehensive about setting a "bad" precedent. Others are worried that a relaxed attitude towards statutory deadlines imposed by the RTI Act might become the preferred norm even after the lockdown is lifted. Experience over the last decade and a half has shown, adherence to statutory deadlines has not been one of the redeeming features of the implementation process. It would be difficult to say anything more than this without adequate knowledge of the contents of the CIC's communication to the Government. I hope the CIC places this communication in the public domain without further delay as it concerns people's fundamental right to seek and obtain information from public authorities within specific timelines.
Meanwhile, the commencement of the 16th year of implementation is a good time to take stock of the addition that RTI makes to the workload of public authorities under the Central Government. How heavy is the burden of RTI applications on Public Information Officers (PIO)? How much do first appeals impose on the time of the designated first appellate authorities (FAAs)?
Origins of the debate about RTI workload
Even as sensitisation and skill development workshops were rolled out for public authorities and PIOs in 2005, murmurs began about the addition to their existing burden of official work. An oft-repeated complaint from PIOs was about increasing their workload without a commensurate increase in their salary. Six years later, an obiter contained in a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court of India recognising the right of students to get access to their evaluated answer scripts through RTI, added grist to this grumbling mill. In the matter of Central Board of Secondary Education & Anr. vsAditya Bandopadhyay and Ors., (2011) 8 SCC 497, the Apex Court made this observation:
"37… The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquility and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty. The nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties. The threat of penalties under the RTI Act and the pressure of the authorities under the RTI Act should not lead to employees of a public authorities prioritising ‘information furnishing’, at the cost of their normal and regular duties." [emphasis supplied]
Ever since, numerous PIOs, FAAs, Information Commissions and even High Courts have cited this 75%-25% bisect whenever they felt like rebuking an applicant for seeking what they perceived to be "voluminous" information or for submitting what they dubbed "vexatious" RTI applications. Examining the correctness or otherwise of such characterisation is not possible when access to such "problematic" RTI applications is not easy. More recently, while hearing another RTI matter relating to the frequently occurring and long standing vacancies in Information Commissions, a Bench headed by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India commented on “professional RTI activists” throwing their weight at public authorities with printed letterheads. Thankfully these observations did not find their way into the Bench’s daily order.
The Scope of the Study
In order to examine what I now call, with a reasonable degree of confidence, the "urban myth" of the undue burden of RTI on an already overworked bureaucracy, a review of publicly reported statistics about RTI applications and first appeals handled by public authorities under the Government of India was done. These figures were compared with data about Central PIOs (CPIOs) and FAAs designated by public authorities. The CIC's Annual Reports are the source of the database put together for this study. I have looked at Central Government's data from 2012-13 to 2018-19 – the years for which statistics are available in a reasonably consistent manner. As for individual ministries and key public authorities, I have relied on statistics reported in the most recent year, namely, 2018-19.
Click here for the complete report of this study.
Click here for the data table which forms the basis of this study.
Main Findings of the Study- Overview
- The total number of RTIs reported by public authorities under the Central Government has risen by more than 83% (83.83%) from 8.86 lakhs (886,681) in 2012-13 to 16.30 lakhs (1,630,048) in 2018-19 (this includes backlog from the previous year and fresh receipts during the reporting year) However, the number of CPIOs designated to handle these RTIs has gone up by a little more than 13% (13.41%) from 21,204 in 2012-13 to 24,048 in 2018-19;
- On an average, a CPIO handled less than 42 RTIs (41.82) in 2012-13. In 2018-19, this increased to almost 68 RTIs in a year (67.78). The monthly average no. of RTIs per CPIO rose from less than 4 to less than 6 RTIs between 2012-13 and 2018-19. Does handling between 4-6 RTI applications per month amount to spending 75% of a CPIO's time? That question can be answered only by examining the content of the RTI application which will reveal the volume of the period for which information is requested. A study of numbers is only the beginning;
- If one looks only at fresh receipts (total no. of RTIs minus the annually reported backlog) the RTI applications grew from 8.11 lakhs in 2012-13 to 13.70 lakhs in 2018-19. This is a growth of a little more than 40% (40.78%). While the annual backlog in 2012-13 was more than 75,000 RTI applications, it stood at a little more than 259,000 at the beginning of 2018-19. So while the number of fresh receipts has indeed gone up, the backlog does not appear to reduce in any year because the number of CPIOs available for their disposal is not matching up with the rising volume;
- The annual average of fresh RTIs received per CPIO has increased from a little more than 38 in 2012-13 (38.26) to almost 57 (56.97) in 2018-19. Consequently, the monthly average number of RTIs disposed during the same period has gone up from a little more than 3 per CPIO (3.19) to less than 5 RTIs (4.75). In 15 years, the averages show that workload has not even doubled per CPIO. So once again the 75%-25% bisect is open to question;
- The RTI application volumes reported in the CIC's Annual Reports include data submitted by PIOs of Union Territories' administration as well. In 2018-19, the UTs had received 1.76 lakh RTI applications. If this figure is deducted from the volume of RTIs attracted by the public authorities under the Central Government only, the total figure will be 14.53 lakhs (backlog plus fresh receipts). This works out to an annual average of less than 64 RTIs per CPIO (63.87) and the monthly average is a little more than 5 RTIs (5.32) per CPIO.
RTI applications workload in select Ministries (2018-19)
- The topper on the CIC's list- the Ministry of Finance, reported a total of 2.22 lakh RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts). This figure includes not only RTIs handled by various departments in this Ministry but also, public sector banks, tax authorities and insurance companies, debt recovery tribunals among others- a total of 194 public authorities- all of which have a large clientele and therefore high numbers of RTIs are to be expected. With 7,100 CPIOs handling this workload, the annual average works out to a little more than 31 RTIs per CPIO (31.27) and a monthly average of just over 2 RTIs (2.61). When only fresh receipts are taken into account, the annual average per CPIO falls to less than 30 RTIs (29.73) and the monthly average hovers around 2 RTIs per CPIO (2.48). Can handling an average of 2 RTIs per month be reasonably labelled as an enormous workload on a CPIO? Clearly, the averages are so low because of the large number of designated CPIOs in this Ministry and its public authorities;
- The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology reported the second highest number of RTI applications in 2018-19 at 1.52 lakhs (backlog plus fresh receipts) With 2,074 CPIOs appointed to dispose them of, the annual average works out to a little more than 73 RTIs per CPIO. The monthly average is a little above 6 RTIs per CPIO (6.12);
- At 3rd place, the Ministry of Human Resource Development logged a total of 1.38 lakh RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts) handled by 1,469 CPIOs. This amounts to an annual average of almost 94 RTIs (93.95) and a monthly average of less than 8 RTIs (7.83) per CPIO;
- At 4th place, the Ministry of Railways reported a total of 1.29 lakh RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts) handled by 1,374 CPIOs. This works out to an annual average of 94 RTIs (94.01) and a monthly average of under 8 RTIs (7.83) per CPIO;
- At 5th place, the Ministry of Defence reported a total of 1.98 lakh RTIs (backlog and fresh RTIs) handled by 1,293 CPIOs in 2018-19. This includes the RTIs received by the three defence forces. The annual average works out to less than 154 RTI (153.16) and less than 13 RTIs per month (12.76) per CPIO;
- 560 CPIOs of the Ministry of Home Affairs dealt with a total of 59,032 RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts). This Ministry includes several paramilitary forces and intelligence agencies that receive several thousand RTIs in a year. The annual average works out to a little more than 105 RTIs (105.41) and a monthly average of less than 9 RTIs per CPIO (8.78);
- The Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions- the nodal Ministry for implementing RTI appointed 265 CPIOs to handle a total of 56,810 RTIs (backlog plus fresh receipts) in 2018-19. This works out to an annual average of less than 215 RTIs (214.38) per CPIO and a monthly average of less than 18 RTIs (17.86) per CPIO;
- 225 CPIOs appointed by the Ministry of External Affairs dealt with 5,802 RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts). This works out to an annual average of less than 26 RTIs per CPIO (25.79) and a monthly average of a little more than 2 RTIs per CPIO (2.15);
- The 252 designated CPIOs in the Ministry of Labour and Employment averaged more than 336 RTIs annually (336.44) with the monthly average being about 28 RTIs per CPIO (28.04); and
- 30 CPIOs in the Election Commission of India handled an annual average of less than 136 RTIs and a monthly average of under 12 RTIs (11.29) in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts).
Where RTI requests seem like a burden (year 2018-19)
- There are several public authorities that have designated only one CPIO on whom falls the entire year’s burden. For example, the lone CPIO in the Prime Minister’s Office handled 13,816 RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog and fresh receipts), taking the monthly average to 1,151 RTIs. Fresh receipts amounted to an average of almost 1,012 per month;
- The lone CPIO in the President’s Secretariat handled a monthly average of less than 285 RTIs (backlog plus fresh receipts) in 2018-19;
- The lone CPIO in the Supreme Court of India handled a total of 3,775 RTIs (backlog plus fresh receipts) in 2018-19. This is a monthly average of almost 315 RTIs;
- Delhi High Court on the other hand had appointed 4 PIOs to handle a total of 1,791 RTIs (backlog plus fresh receipts) in 2018-19. This accounted for an annual average of less than 448 RTIs per PIO and a monthly average of just a little more than 37 RTIs (37.31); and
- The Delhi Police had designated 57 PIOs to handle a total of 30,630 RTIs in 2018-19 (backlog plus fresh receipts). This works out to an annual average of more than 537 RTIs per PIO (537.37) and a monthly average of under 45 RTIs (44.78). When only fresh receipts are counted the annual average fell to less than 512 RTIs per PIO (511.60) and the monthly average fell to less than 43 RTIs (42.63) per CPIO;
First appeals workload - an Overview
- More than 9,300 FAAs designated (9,309) across public authorities under the Central Government had a total of 1.51 lakh first appeals to deal with in 2018-19. This works out to an annual average of a little more than 16 appeals per FAA and a monthly average of less than 2 cases per FAA. Of these 1.51 lakh cases, FAAs actually decided a little over 99,000 cases during this period. So the annual average fell further to less than 11 cases and the monthly average was barely 1 case per FAA. In fact ever since 2012-13 the monthly average number of cases received has always been less than 2 per FAA and actual disposal has been less than 1 case per month; and
- If the first appeal figures from the UTs are excluded from the Central Government’s total, the annual and monthly averages do not alter drastically. The annual average remains in the range of 15 cases and the monthly average around 1 case per FAA.
First appeals workload in select Ministries (2018-19)
- More than 2,100 FAAs (2,156) designated by various public authorities under the chart topper- Ministry of Finance- had to deal with more than 25,000 first appeals in 2018-19. The annual average was under 12 first appeals and the monthly average was less than 1 appeal per FAA. These figures fell even more as the FAAs actually disposed barely 16,000 appeals (15,917) during this period taking the annual average down to less than 8 per FAA (7.38) and the monthly average fell further to under 1 case (0.68);
- The highest annual average was in the Ministry of Labour and Employment with each FAA required to deal with 42 cases averaging a little more than 3 per month;
- The next high average number of appeals per FAA was in the Ministry of Railways at less than 36 annually and less than 3 per month per FAA;
- In the Ministry of Human Resource Development FAAs averaged under 27 first appeals annually (fresh receipts plus backlog) and less than 3 per month. In terms of actual disposal the annual average fell to less than 15 (14.56) and the monthly average was just above 1 per FAA (1.21);
- The Defence, Home and External Affairs Ministries averaged between 1-4 cases per month per FAA in terms of totals while the averages fell further in terms of actual disposals;
Where first appeals seem like a burden (2018-19)
- The burden seems enormous in the PMO, President’s Secretariat and the Supreme Court which had only one FAA each to dispose between 400-600 appeals in 2018-19. Naturally, the monthly average ranged between 34-167 cases per FAA between them; and
- Strangely, actual disposals in the PMO, President’s Secretariat and the Supreme Court ranged between 0-16 per month with the PMO reporting that its FAA disposed exactly 10% of the 2,000 first appeals received in 2018-19 (hence the monthly average of 16 cases). Interestingly, the President’s Secretariat reported that it did not dispose of any of the 611 appeal cases during the entire year. The Supreme Court reported that its FAA disposed only 3 of the 403 first appeals received in 2018-19.
If these figures are accurate, it is cause for concern because the lone FAAs do not seem to be complying with the 45-day statutory time limit for disposal of such cases. On the other hand, if these figures are inaccurately reported, the Central Information Commission does not seem to be doing enough to cross check the accuracy of the RTI statistics being logged in by CPIOs at the back end of its RTI reporting system. This statistical mystery requires resolution.
Conclusions from the study
Where the workload is distributed across multiple PIOs, RTI does not appear to be a burden, at least statistically speaking. Where all responsibilities are concentrated in a very small number of PIOs or in just one PIO, the workload appears herculean. Another reason why many public authorities and their designated officers think RTI is a burden is because of the mindset that is slow to change. Study after study has demonstrated the inadequacy of implementation of the proactive disclosure provisions of the RTI Act despite the Supreme Court of India declaring this as a mandatory obligation in the CBSE case cited above. RTI has been reduced to a request driven process by the public authorities themselves who then complain about the increasing burden of information requests and complaints.
Proactive disclosure of information about health, public distribution system, relief measures announced for migrant workers, women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged segments of society is most urgently required during the COVID lockdown and in its aftermath. Yet the means of acquiring such information are almost non-existent. Instead of proactively and routinely publishing crucial information that is actionable by citizens and civil society actors, emphasis is being placed on statistical dashboards whose figures mean little to the hungry and the unwell. On the other hand, the State wants citizens to become more and more transparent to its agencies through monitoring and surveillance mobile phone applications.
There is an urgent need for the Central and State Governments to place more and more information about their actions and even their omissions and failures in the public domain. There is no better time than now for greater emphasis on proactive information disclosure. Rather than wait for people to make written information requests, front line departments must man telephone lines to provide information to people and transmit feedback from them about the failings of the system to protect people's fundamental rights and entitlements and their dignity. The Information Commissions and other similarly places statutory oversight bodies like human rights commissions, women and child rights commissions, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas must get their act together to serve the people better during these difficult times. Providing timely and credible access to information and promptly redressing their grievances are key to reinforcing people's confidence in these agencies that they mean business. If this means designating PIOs in every public authority with the sole task of providing information to people verbally or in writing on demand, then, so be it. It is a necessary investment of time, energy and resources.
CHRI's Trail of Inquiry: CHRI-RTIsWorkload-GoI-mainfindings | CHRI-RTIWorkload-GoIstats
Media coverage: GO India News | pudr.org