Overhaul RTI setup: report

Written by Surabhi Rastogi | Surabhi | Vikas Dhoot | New Delhi | Updated: Jun 30 2009, 08:36am hrs
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The first independent assessment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 has found many lacunae in its implementation and called for a sweeping overhaul of the RTI machinery.

The proposed changes include setting up a separate executive authority for information disclosures by all government bodies, a pro-active disclosure policy and a national RTI helpline for filing applications.

The report will soon be made public by the department of personnel & training. President Pratibha Patil had mentioned strengthening the RTI system by suitably amending the law to provide for disclosure by government in all non-strategic areas as a priority for the UPAs second innings.

The RTI Act was a major endeavour by the UPA to increase transparency in government functioning.

In the report, Understanding the key issues and constraints in implementing the RTI Act, PricewaterhouseCoopers has suggested the establishment of an executive authority to oversee the Acts implementation.

Now, there is only a Chief Information Commissioner, a quasi-judicial authority, which works for grievance redressal and looks into cases where information has been denied or delayed. The report has suggested setting up an overarching organisational structure with the wherewithal to answer all RTI queries, beyond the CIC and the information officers, an official said.

There are several areas where the government has non-sensitive information that can be made public voluntarily.

The report has suggested a regime of more proactive disclosures by public authorities on such subjects so as to reduce the workload on information officers, the official said.

The reports call for a sea-change in the governments approach to RTI and the spirit of transparency is based on its ground-level findings through surveys, workshops and a review of RTI statistics from select public authorities. Surveys were conducted on RTI implementation in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Meghalaya and Assam by the Indian Market Research Bureau.

The surveys found that awareness about the procedure for filing an RTI application was alarmingly low; the quality of information provided to citizens was often poor; and the babus responsiveness and knowledge levels were inadequate. Response time was tardy in many cases and information-seekers often had to make more than one visit to a public office.

Proactive disclosure by public authorities, the report notes, would provide easier access to information to citizens and supplement the governments e-governance programme. The UPA has already embarked on an e-governance mission where government services will be available online. The study says that proactive disclosure by government departments on their Websites will also lead to a convergence between the RTI regime and the e-governance programme, the official said.

Although government Websites have a link for filing an RTI application, the report has suggested that the government should aggressively use information technology to help citizens tap information more easily. For this, the creation of a national helpline for RTI has been suggested, on the lines of the one set up in Bihar.

Under the Bihar model, a citizen can, instead of writing an RTI application, call up the helpline, where an attendant processes the request and sends an application to the concerned department. A copy is also forwarded to the applicant within three days along with a unique number to track the request.

It would be a good move to allow filing RTI applications on the phone. More importantly, a proactive disclosure policy by public authorities and linking RTI to the e-governance mission would help in greater dissemination of information to citizens, Arvind Kejriwal, an RTI activist, told FE.