The Right to Information (RTI) Act was brought in to facilitate transparency of government functioning and citizens’ access to particulars of this with, of course, an in-principle public interest caveat. But chief information commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu’s recent observation, as reported by The Economic Times, shows how widely and brazenly RTI obligations are being dodged by government officials. Acharyulu, hearing a case filed by a retired IAS officer seeking copies of letters pertaining to a vigilance case against him, noted that millions of RTI applications had been possibly rejected by public information officers (PIOs) over the last 11 years that RTI has been in force, with PIOs claiming the relevant files were missing. He noted that with such summary evasion of public scrutiny, celebrating RTI is “futile”. While digitisation and a focus on paperless government offices will make it increasingly difficult to use the “missing files” excuse, the department of personnel and training should do as Acharyulu has directed and come up with a system to prevent loss of files and recreate those that are lost. At the same time, the fault in the RTI mechanism needs to be fixed from the demand-side as well. The transparency law has, no doubt, emerged as an important tool in uncovering graft—the Adarsh scam, the 2G scam were all exposed with the help of RTI replies—but the system has often been used by overzealous applicants for frivolous or damaging ends. In fact, various courts have observed that far too many queries are filed to extract personal or frivolous information or simply to harass an official.
A report highlights that a number of frivolous inquiries on matters such as the salaries of government employees, the amount spent by the PM on food and travel, etc, have been filed under the Act that was meant to uncover facts about government functioning. So, while the government needs to enforce strict rules regarding response to RTI queries, it also needs to ensure that departments do not get stuck answering irrelevant queries.