It's been 17 years since the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 was enacted to provide transparency to government decisions, hold the government accountable and fight corruption. The use of the RTI Act has increased manifold over the years, with around 53-56 lakh RTI applications filed annually. Nearly a quarter were filed with the Central Information Commission (CIC) between 2016-17 and 2020-21 and the rest with State Information Commissions (SICs), per the CIC's annual report for 2020-21. Rejection of RTI applications by public authorities was at its lowest – 3.85% – in 2020-21, the last year for which data are publicly available.

Behind such positive figures, however, lies the reality that hurdles to accessing information, whether at the Union or state government level, still persist, a FactChecker analysis of the RTI ecosystem in India shows.

Assaults on and alleged murders of RTI activists continue across India, per data collated by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a New Delhi-based, non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for the realisation of human rights in Commonwealth countries (former British colonies, such as India). Just two weeks before the RTI Act anniversary, on October 3, an RTI activist's son died after a man he had accused of illegal sand mining, allegedly rammed their scooter with his four wheeler in Gujarat, the Press Trust of India reported.

Defunct and understaffed information commissions, deficient transparency the functioning of the commissions, and heavy backlog of pending RTI appeals and complaints, are some of the hurdles that prevent people from accessing public information, according to an October 2022 Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India 2021-22, released by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS). SNS is a citizen-led transparency and accountability-in-government initiative which works primarily in Delhi.

Increasing Attacks on RTI Activists

While attacks on RTI activists have decreased by 56% in the last six years, from 30 in 2017 to 13 in 2021, there has recently been a marginal increase in deaths and assaults of RTI activists between 2020 and 2021, CHRI data show. Around 28 RTI activists were threatened, assaulted, or killed every year, on average, since the RTI Act was implemented in 2005. Over 100 RTI activists have been killed, 182 have been assaulted, 188 harassed or threatened and seven have died by suicide.

Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha and Rajasthan each reported 3-4 cases of attacks in the past two years. These are also the states where RTI use is much higher compared with other states, said Venkatesh Nayak, Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

"In 2020, five cases of alleged murder of RTI activists were reported. In 2021, this figure rose to seven. In 2022, five alleged murders have already been reported and we have more than two months to go before the year ends," said Nayak.

Moreover, the nature of these attacks have become more gruesome, he added. "In one case in Rajasthan, nails were driven into the legs of a Dalit RTI activist. Such is the cruel and inhuman treatment that perpetrators are meting out to RTI activists now," Nayak told FactChecker.

"The human rights commissions at the national and state level, which have policies to address threats to and attacks on human rights defenders, have failed to monitor the performance of the law enforcement agencies in fixing accountability in such cases. Information Commissions also have a poor track record in chasing such cases and ensuring the proactive disclosure of information sought by the victims. The Union government does not even maintain a national database related to attacks on RTI workers," he mentioned.

Some Information Commissions Defunct, Others Working at Reduced Capacity

The Supreme Court of India in a February 15, 2019 judgement held that information commissions are vital for the smooth working of the RTI Act, read the SNS report. India has 29 information commissions, the CIC at the central level and 28 SICs.

Of the 28 SICs, two (in Jharkhand and Tripura), were defunct as of October 2022, per the SNS report. "In the absence of functioning commissions, information seekers have no reprieve under the RTI Act if they are unable to access information as per the provisions of the law," the report said.

Under the RTI Act, information commissions consist of a Chief Information Commissioner and up to 10 Information Commissioners. Four SICs – Manipur, Telangana, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh – are currently functioning without a Chief Information Commissioner, as of October 2022, per the SNS report.

Four others – Nagaland, Odisha, Uttarakhand, Gujarat – now have a Chief Information Commissioner, but the post was vacant for a period ranging from 2-25 months before that. Information Commissioner posts in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Bihar also remain vacant.

One-fourth of the total posts (42 out of 165) sanctioned for Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners are vacant across the CIC and SICs, an October 2022 report by Delhi-based anti-corruption NGO Transparency International India (TII) had found.

Only 13 out of the total 30 Commissions have an online portal available for filing RTI appeals, said TII.

Slow Disposal and Increasing Backlog of RTI Appeals and Complaints

The backlog of RTI appeals and complaints pending with different information commissions has been steadily rising, the SNS report found. Till June 30, 2022, 3.14 lakh RTI appeals were pending. This is a 44% overall increase from the number of pending appeals/complaints in 2019, and a 10% increase from the pending appeals/complaints in 2021.

Maharashtra has the highest backlog of RTI appeals/complaints, at nearly 1,00,000 – and also a 44% shortfall of Information Commissioners. The West Bengal and Bihar SICs are functioning with half their IC posts vacant, despite a backlog of more than 10,000 appeals.

There is also considerable variation in the time taken to dispose of RTI appeals/complaints across different states, per the SNS report. The West Bengal SIC would take more than 24 years to dispose of an RTI appeal/complaint filed on July 1, 2022, at its current rate of disposal. Maharashtra and Odisha would take 5 years to dispose of a matter. About 12 ICs would take more than a year to dispose of an RTI appeal/complaint.

While some SICs have fixed norms for the number of cases to be disposed of within a year by an information commissioner, most have not adopted any norms. The CIC has set a norm of 3,200 cases per commissioner, annually. Even so, till last year, the CIC's disposal rate was well below the stipulated figure, at 2,583 cases per commissioner per year, per SNS.

Section 25 of the RTI Act also obligates each information commission to prepare a report annually, to be laid before Parliament or the State Legislature, but 20 out of 29 ICs (69%) have not yet published their annual report for 2020-21, SNS reported.