Groaning under the weight of RTI backlog cases

April 07, 2023 12:00 am | Updated 05:34 am IST - Hyderabad The Telangana State Information Commission (TSIC) is currently headless, as the State government has not yet reconstituted the panel even months after the former Chief Information Commissioner demitted office. Buddha Murali, the last Chief Information Commissioner, left office on September 24, 2022. The other five Information Commissioners — Katta Shekar Reddy, Guguloth Shankar Naik, Syed Khaleelullah, Myda Narayan Reddy and Mohd. Ameer — left office on February 25 of this year. With no new panel of Information Commissioners being announced, the TSIC’s ability to hear and dispose of cases at the TSIC has naturally ground to a halt. According to sources, the TSIC’s workbench is now groaning under the weight of an estimated 3,600 complaints and 4,300 second appeals — a staggering backlog of nearly 7,900 cases. “No case is being heard at the Commission after the members demitted office. Typically, the Commission gets between 200 and 400 cases each month, and they are heard by the Information Commissioners concerned. But since late February, we are only dealing with getting the paperwork in order,” staff at the TSIC said. The saga of the case backlog at the TSIC is not new. An RTI query revealed that the backlog in 2017 was 6,804, which rose to 8,671 the next year. By 2019, the backlog rose to 9,091. And finally, by 2020, it shot up to a staggering 10,814. While the current pendency of about 7,900 cases may seem relatively low, sources say each day matters until the government reconstitutes the panel. In the meantime, the backlog is likely to rise even further. Reasons for delay “There could be a few reasons for the delay in appointing new Information Commissioners,” said a source. “The primary reason being that the code of conduct for the Member of Legislative Council elections was in force.” Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a year after the RTI Act of 2005 came into being, had touched upon how information sharing impacts development. “We live in an age of information, in which free flow of information determines the pace of development and the well-being of the people,” he said, even as he further commented that ‘the right to know’ is one of those most fundamental rights that are critical for upholding human dignity. RTI activists in Telangana have been asserting that this very free flow of information can be maintained by means of an online portal where RTI requests could be filed, and replies received. This would also bolster the very purpose of the RTI Act, and improve service delivery mechanisms in a digital age. While the Information Technology Department in March 2021 had proposed to put in place an online platform where the public could file their applications online, the portal is yet to go live in 2023. “There have been times when information that should have been accessible in a routine manner was not. On many occasions, such requests go for the first appeal,” said Sasi Kumar, a director of the NGO Yugantar which is concerned with the online RTI portal Since it went live nearly five years ago, has assisted applicants in drafting and filing around 10,000 RTI requests from across the country, Mr. Kumar said. Stringent implementation To cut down on first appeals, RTI activists suggest a more stringent implementation of Section 4(1)(b). This section mandates public authorities to publish information such as manuals, rules, regulations, budgetary allocations, details of implementation of subsidies and their beneficiaries. “If this is done, there is a good chance that the number of first appeals will go down. This means that the applicant will have information without having to go through the hassle of filing an RTI request because the information, such as beneficiary details, would already be in the public domain. Secondly, this will make things easier for the government. There will be substantially lesser paperwork and a significant decline in expenditure,” an activist said. Kareem Ansari, an RTI activist, alarmed over the rising backlog at the TSIC, wrote to Governor Dr. Tamilisai Soundararajan, seeking her intervention after he noticed that certain State government departments were not responding to requests for information and replies were not being received as per the timelines stipulated under the RTI Act. Other RTI applicants pointed out that some second appeals were being heard after an inordinate delay. For instance, activist S.Q. Masood had to wait for his second appeal to be listed at the Commission for nearly two years. Concerned over the slow turnaround time and the absence of an online portal, Mr. Masood approached the Telangana High Court in 2020 with a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in which he sought the setting up of an e-filing system. Speaking to The Hindu , he said, “Not only is an e-filing system important, it is also essential to have a virtual hearing of cases. Telangana is a pioneer in digital technologies. The State can do this with little to no difficulty. Applicants from far-flung corners of Telangana have to come for hearings, and in many cases, these applicants are not well-off and travelling to Hyderabad becomes difficult. While the hearing of cases was done over phone during the pandemic, this is inadequate and confusing. A virtual hearing, as is seen in courts of law, should be followed at the TSIC,” Mr. Masood said. No annual reports A better understanding of the overall implementation of the RTI Act in a State can be had by the annual reports its own Information Commission prepares. These reports contain an appraisal of the RTI Act in the State, and offer a breakdown of the cases filed by year and by department, and their disposal and pendency. The reports also mention the number of cases in which public information officers have been penalised for not providing information. Though the RTI Act mandates the publishing of these annual reports under Section 25(1), no annual report since the formation of Telangana has gone to print. Those working to strengthen the cause of the RTI Act said that the last annual report that was published was in 2014, before the constitution of Telangana’s own commission. Sources said that while the TSIC has prepared these reports and sent them to the respective departments, the State government, which is entrusted with publishing them, has not done so. “Section 25(1) does say that the Commission should prepare annual reports on the implementation of the Act, but as per the next proviso, it is the Ministry or the department that should collect the information from their own domain and pass it on to the Commission. The State government has not even placed these reports in the State Legislative Assembly to discuss them as provided by Section 25(4),” said an RTI expert who did not wish to be named. A panel comprising the Chief Information Commissioner, the Chief Secretary and other officials to look into the workings of the Act has not met at regular intervals to discuss shortcomings in implementation, the expert said. The annual reports have found no mention under the subhead ‘Papers Laid on the Table’ in the State Legislative Assembly, nor the ‘Council Papers Laid on the Table’, he said. “It appears that the State government is not concerned with strengthening the implementation of the RTI Act. Panel meetings must be convened periodically and discussions to improve the implementation of the RTI Act should be thoroughly discussed,” he said. Not only is an e-filing system important, it is also essential to have a virtual hearing of cases. Telangana is a pioneer in digital technologies. The State can do this with little to no difficulty S.Q. Masood RTI activist While the current pendency may seem relatively low, sources say each day matters until the government reconstitutes the panel. In the meantime, the backlog is likely to rise even further