|Friday, 07 April 2017 05:22|
Letting an inquiry lapse if the applicant dies a bad idea
Given how the Right to Information (RTI) Act has become a powerful tool in the hands of citizens to ensure accountability from public authorities, it is only expected that the political class would want to shield itself from the kind of scrutiny this has enabled. To that extent, transparency activists have so far done well to resist attempts to change the Act/RTI rules, to reduce some of its powers. At the same time, given its increasing popularity, the sheer number of queries and appeals information officers, state and the central information commissions have to handle can be overwhelming—while over 11 lakh RTI queries were pending at the end of the reporting year 2015-16 across all public authorities in the nation, as of April 5, there were 5,252 complaints and 21,438 appeals pending at all information commissions, including the central one. The government could have had this in mind, and perhaps with an intent to ensure that the transparency system isn’t clogged, it recently proposed introducing two provisions, on withdrawal of appeals and abatement of ongoing appeals, to the RTI rules. However, these provisions, innocent as they seem on paper, could have deadly consequences for information-seekers in the real world, and thus a chilling effect on RTI itself.
While the rules so far have been silent on withdrawals and abatement of appeals, the draft rules posted on the department of personnel and training website for inputs from the public allow the Information Commissions the discretion to permit the withdrawal of an appeal if the person making the request sends in a signed application. While this sounds logical and is the process in other laws—if a complainant is not interested, how can any proceedings go on?—it can end up encouraging threatening people into withdrawing their appeals. Similarly, allowing the proceedings to abate with the death of the appellant is also a bad idea since it can encourage people to try and get the information-seeker killed—the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative lists 386 cases of attack or intimidation of RTI users in the three months of 2017 alone; 57 users were murdered, 157 were assaulted, 167 harassed or threatened while five killed themselves. Given the impact the law can have, the government will not only do well to revisit these changes, it could be more pro-active in each department putting out more information as a matter of course and on working on ways to protect those using RTI since, by definition, they cannot be protected under the whisteblower law until they are held to be whistleblowers—more often than not, those seeking RTI information are not even working in the organisations from which they seek information, which could be an essential criterion for being declared a whistleblower.