On 13 February 2014, Ajay Dubey, a Right to Information (RTI) activist based in Bhopal, filed an RTI regarding the appointment of government advocates in Madhya Pradesh (MP). Well-versed with the condition of RTI applications in the state, Dubey did not expect to get a reply from the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Law and Legislative Affairs department of MP. “The government’s attitude is lacklustre when it comes to disseminating information under the RTI Act,” he told me during a conversation over the phone on 24 June 2015, last Wednesday.
However, contrary to Dubey’s expectations, the department did deign to send him a reply on 10 June 2015, more than a year after he had filed the application. The response shed light on the appointment of Swaraj Kaushal, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s husband, and Bansuri Kaushal, their daughter, as advocates for the government of MP. These appointments, Dubey alleged, were a result of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s desire to consolidate his position within the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
Under the provisions of the RTI Act—which mandates that any information sought under the RTI should be provided within 30 days—the 16 months that the state took to process this query would probably qualify as unduly long. But when you consider the abysmal state of the RTI act in MP, 16 months is barely anything.
In October 2014, the RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RaaG) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES)—an autonomous research institute based in Delhi—released a comprehensive study on the functioning of the RTI act in India. Between January 2012 and November 2013—the duration of the study—the State Information Commission (SIC) of MP received more than 8,000 applications; out of these it addressed 472. While Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh had a much higher figure of pending queries by the end of 2013—48,442 and 32,390 respectively—compared to MP that had 14,977, these states had disposed 83 and 98 percent of the cases they had received during the period of the study. Meanwhile, MP had responded to less than six percent of the total applications that had been filed in the state. “At the monthly rates of disposal reported by ICs (Information Commissioners), an appeal/complaint filed on January 1, 2014 would come up for hearing in the Madhya Pradesh IC after 60 years,” the study stated, “in the year 2074!”
This inefficiency could be attributed to the state government’s inability to recruit a single information commissioner (IC) for the SIC between December 2012 and January 2014. The RTI Act mandates 10 information commissioners in every state, all of whom work under a chief information commissioner (CIC). Between March 2012 and January 2014, the SIC in MP had not appointed anyone for 10 of the 11 posts that were vacant in the commission. In August 2012, Iqbal Ahmed—the only IC remaining in the department since March 2012—was promoted to the post of the CIC. After his retirement in December 2012, there was not a single officer in the SIC to process RTI queries in MP. “The State Information Commission is the apex body that oversees the implementation of a fundamental right—the right to information—and leaving that body vacant means denying people their rights,” Amrita Johri, one of the authors of the RaaG-CES study told me over the phone when I spoke to her on 24 June 2015.
Following an order by the MP High Court in December 2013, the SIC appointed five information commissioners and a chief information commissioner in January 2014. However, according to Dubey, very little has changed. “Now, they dodge the query by asking for things like the number of the file from which the information is sought, and most of the time you can’t know that” he said.
GS Dandotiya, one of the information commissioners who had been appointed in January 2014, called the RaaG-CES study “beautiful” when I spoke to him on 29 June 2015. He was being sarcastic, I realised during the course of our conversation. “There was a huge pendency when we joined, but most of it has been cleared up now,” he said, before adding, “and by February next year, we don’t think we will have any pending cases.”
By Dandotiya’s estimate, the number of pending queries has dropped to about 2,000. But he was unable to provide any actual data on the cases that were disposed to back his claim. The annual report for 2014, that would furnish such details, has still not been prepared by the SIC in MP. “This is because of bureaucratic delays, and it doesn’t help that most of our staff is appointed by the way of deputation,” Dandotiya told me. Staff on deputation do not have specific skills necessary for the department and are often shifted out soon after acquiring them only for a new set of employees to begin the learning process again.
The tacit refusal of the MP government to take the RTI act seriously is also reflected in the fact that its officers do not appear to fear penalties for the non-disclosure of information, provisions for which are a part of the act and have been implemented by other states. “I don’t think the state has ever penalised a Public Information Officer for not complying with an RTI appeal,” Rakesh Ranjan, another activist based in Bhopal, told me. As of September 2014, the SIC had received more than 25,000 second appeals and complaints centred around the denial of information by Public Information Officers. Even though the SIC is still functioning on half capacity, as five posts continue to remain unoccupied, no officer from the General Administration Department (GAD)—that is responsible for overseeing the appointments and working of the commission—has faced any penalty in the 10 years of its existence.
The most blatant violation of the RTI act by the MP government is evident from its badly designed website. Under section 4 (1b) of the RTI act, relevant information—18 points, ranging from the procedures adopted in the decision-making processes of the SIC to budgetary allocation—along with an annual report on the performance of the organisation must be put up on its website. Upon trying to click on any of the links on the MP-SIC site that would supply this information, I was confronted by a wall of undecipherable script. Meanwhile, the state government is coaxing Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) in the region, to make “a proactive disclosure of information under section 4 of the RTI” and abide by the very standards that it has been unable to meet.
“Earlier, it used to take three or four years to get a response to your RTI application,” said Rolly Shivhare, a Bhopal based activist, when I asked her if things had changed now that the commission had armed itself with the ICs and the CIC.“Ab reply aana hota hai to ek-dedh saal me aa jata hai”—Now, if a reply is to come, it comes in a year or so.
Her assessment appeared to be accurate. Since January last year, Dubey filed numerous RTI applications; only a handful of which have elicited replies. In April 2014, he asked the Law and Legislative Affairs department for a copy of the letter written by the chief justice of MP High Court, which asked the government to regulate Public Interest Litigations (PIL). On multiple occasions through the past year, Dubey also asked the GAD to disclose documents that would shed light on the appointment of the Lokayukta—an anti-corruption ombudsman organization in the Indian states—and for information on the formation of the Civil Service Board, which recommends the postings, transfers and disciplinary actions for civil service officers within a state. He is still to receive a response to any of these queries.
The RTI query that set forth the questionable appointment of Swaraj Kaushal and Bansuri Swaraj as Madhya Pradesh’s government advocates, in 2009 and 2013, respectively, has not been answered in its entirety either. “I had asked for the disclosure of the files about the appointment of every government advocate—I don’t even know how many are there—they have only given the names of a few, and haven’t mentioned how much were they paid,” Dubey told me. He added, “Perhaps that would take another RTI application.” Such an application, if it were to be filed now, would be in the same lot that Dandotiya wishes to clear by February 2015. Eight months for an RTI response would be in violation of the time frame that was established by the act. But given the functioning of the State Information Commission in Madhya Pradesh, it would be surprisingly quick.