The purpose of the Right to Information Act, it seems, will be defeated in Maharashtra if the state information commission does not get its act together quickly.
The number of second appeals pending with the commission has been growing with each passing day. It is likely to touch 18,000 by the month-end and some even date back to 2006.
The fact came to fore when a group of RTI activists took up the matter (RTI delays) with the state information chief and asked him how he planned to sort this out. The RTI Act says the commission should provide a person with the required information within 30 days of filing an application. But the huge backlog of second appeals has ensured that the minimum waiting period for a query is three months.
If you want to know something under the RTI Act, you will have to file an application. If there is no response within 30 days or if you are unsatisfied with the answer, you can approach the first appellate authority (FAA). If there is no/unsatisfactory response within 45 days, you can directly approach the information chief. The process, known as second appeal in RTI parlance, has no time limit though.
And this is the bottleneck adding to the delay, the group found. Though Vijay Kuvalekar, acting chief information commissioner since July 2011, is aware of it, he can do little. “There are at least 3,000 appeals — letters and complaints — untouched,” he said.
“We came to know of this when we tried to prepare a chronological list of pending appeals following the demand for quicker disposals by RTI activists. Unfortunately, we cannot avoid the delay because we are short-staffed and there are only five commissioners, including myself, for the entire state.”
The RTI Act allows a state to have 10 commissioners and a chief, but the Maharashtra government has sanctioned only seven and a chief. Of the seven, one has been suspended and two have retired more than a month ago.
At least 15,785 appeals were pending in June 2011. That is a jump of almost 22% in six months as 12,933 appeals were pending in December 2010, Bhaskar Prabhu, member of Mahiti Adhikar Manch (the group that took up the matter of pending appeals), said.
The group has offered to help the information commission. “We will give the names of our volunteers who will go through the pending appeals and prepare a chronological list for faster disposal,” Prabhu said. “We feel chief minister Prithviraj Chavan is responsible for this mess. Neither did he appoint a new state information chief, nor did he replace those who have retired. There, obviously, is a problem of staff-shortage, which is worsening the situation.”
The retired information chiefs, however, tried to play down the whole issue. “I do not know how the number of pending appeals has gone up so high. Those were never placed before me,” Vilas Patil said. “I was the information chief only for six months and I tried my best to clear the backlog.”
Suresh Joshi, who was the state information commissioner for five years, said the number of pending appeals could not be that high. “Our attempt has always been to dispose of the oldest first. Maybe one or two or at best a couple of appeals can date back to 2006,” he said. “Also, there is the problem of too many appeals coming from a person. Sometimes, people file almost 50 applications. Maybe some of those applications are still pending.”