Exclusive: In The Name of Transparency, Govt Dilutes RTI Rules

The proposed revised RTI Rules 2017 are regressive and alarming, according to several key stakeholders.

Updated
India
6 min read
<b>The Quint</b> has exclusively accessed the revised draft RTI Rules, 2017 which dilutes the 2012 rules and could make accessibility to information even more tedious.&nbsp;
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There is no denying that the Right to Information Act has, over the years, been a useful tool to unearth corruption and highlight policy pitfalls. However, successive governments have attempted to tweak this very law, which has more often than not ended up complicating instead of easing people’s access to information.

After vociferous protests against its 2017 Rules Draft, the Modi government released a revised draft, which the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) was initially reluctant to share. Activist Commodore Lokesh K Batra was told that “cabinet papers could not be shared under RTI”.

However, he appealed to the Chief Information Commission (CIC) and was able to obtain a copy of the revised rules under which citizens of India can exercise their Right to Information. The Quint has accessed a copy of this draft, which has several shortfalls that could erode the stated intent of the law.

Problems with the Revised Draft of the 2017 RTI Rules

 Exclusive: In The Name of Transparency, Govt Dilutes RTI Rules

1. Arbitrary RTI Fee

As per the existing RTI Rules 2012, the RTI fee is Rs 10 for an application which shall not contain more than 500 words, excluding the annexure charges.

In the draft RTI Rules 2017, an addition was made that the RTI fee will be Rs 10 or “as notified by Central Government from time to time.”

Objections by Stakeholders:

According to Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), this Rule leaves a window open for the Central Government to change the application fee from time to time through notifications. They added, “varying the quantum of application fee through any other notification will be illegitimate and invalid.”

NCPRI said, “as per the provisions of the RTI Act, fee can only be prescribed through Rules and therefore, any attempt to empower the Central Government otherwise, through Rules, is without a legal basis.”

Despite strong objections raised to this Rule, no changes were made in the revised draft by the government.

2. Withdrawal/Abatement of Appeal

One of the points on which the draft RTI Rules 2017 has been severely criticised is the addition of Rule 12. It says, “the proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant”. Which means that if an RTI activist died while their appeal is pending with the CIC, the matter would be closed.

However, after protests, this rule was deleted by the government in the revised draft, which said –  “the Committee recommends deleting this rule keeping in view the suggestions by most of the stakeholders that such a rule may put the RTI appellant in a vulnerable position”.

Stakeholders worry that the government could be tempted to re-introduce this provision in the final RTI Rules 2017 without their knowledge.
 Exclusive: In The Name of Transparency, Govt Dilutes RTI Rules
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

3. Filing Complaint to the CIC Is Time-Bound

The Government has introduced a new Rule 12 (iv) in the draft RTI Rules 2017. It states that if a complainant is aggrieved (for receiving an unsatisfactory or no reply), they must file an appeal with the CIC within 90 days. Earlier, no such deadline existed.

Objections by Stakeholders:

Both CHRI and NCPRI have raised strong objections and say the proposed amendment is “without any legal basis.”

Nothing in Section 18 of the RTI Act stipulates a deadline for the submission of complaints to the CIC. Parliament has deliberately kept the process open-ended, said CHRI. Despite strong objections raised on this Rule, no changes were made in the revised draft by the government.
 Exclusive: In The Name of Transparency, Govt Dilutes RTI Rules
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

4. All Encompassing Powers to the CIC

Another new Rule was introduced in the draft RTI Rules 2017 which empowers the CIC to decide on the merit of the complaint. A subsection of the rule book states – “on perusal of the case file, if the CIC is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to inquire into the matter, an enquiry in respect thereof shall be made, otherwise the complaint shall be closed by passing an order.”

Objections by Stakeholders:

This Rule, stakeholders argue, will allow the CIC to close a complaint without even giving an opportunity to the complainant to present his case or be heard.

The government has so far remained unmoved by the objection raised by the CHRI and the Rule continues to be present in the revised draft as well.
 Exclusive: In The Name of Transparency, Govt Dilutes RTI Rules
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

5. Supreme Powers to the CIC Chief

Further, the new draft Rules 2017 gives the Chief of the CIC the authority to decide which case should be heard/disposed by a single bench. It states– “an appeal/complaint shall be posted before a Single Bench for hearing/disposal, only after the Chief Information Commissioner issues an order.”

Objections by Stakeholders:

According to the stakeholders, this Rule is in contravention of Section 12(4) of the RTI Act which states that the Chief Information Commissioner shall be assisted by other Information Commissioners in dispensing his duties.

The management of the affairs of the CIC is a collective responsibility of all Information Commissioners. But, the revised draft continues to carry this Rule despite objection.
 Exclusive: In The Name of Transparency, Govt Dilutes RTI Rules
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

6. Compliance with Orders of the CIC

Approaching the CIC is a last resort for an RTI activist. As per the RTI Act, the CIC can penalise non-compliant government departments. But in reality, that does not happen.

As per the revised Rule 2017, the government had further diluted this and proposed that a communication of non-compliance shall be entertained by the CIC only if it is made within 3 months from the date of non-compliance. And even if the applicant manages to do that, their complaint will be entertained by the CIC only if they’re convinced that the complaint was not satisfactorily dealt with.

For years we had been asking the government to introduce a new rule that makes it binding on the government to obey the CIC order. It will save applicants from filing a court case against the government due to non-compliance of CIC’s order.
Commodore Lokesh K Batra, RTI Activist

Objections by Stakeholders:

According to the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), a collective of activists, the CIC is legally empowered to impose penalties, award compensation as per the RTI Act. However, in reality, it does not exercise this right to penalise non-compliant government departments. Additionally, the NCPRI contends that the CIC should keep track of the matter till such time the required information is provided to the applicant.

Taking note of these objections raised by the NCPRI, the government deleted the rule that directs the CIC to take stern against non-compliant government departments. The revised RTI Rule 2017 now states: “the Committee had recommended seeking legal opinion as to whether rules can be made on this matter.”

The government seems to be dragging its feet on finalising the RTI Rules, 2017. As shown above, the government continues to turn a deaf ear to some of the crucial Rules which requires amendment for easy and timely accessibility of the information by stakeholders.

The revised draft will clearly lead to more complications if finalised by the government as RTI Rules, 2017.

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