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    CIC Information commission annual report shows data mismatches, discrepancies

    GovernanceAccountabilityCIC Information commission annual report shows data mismatches, discrepancies
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    CIC Information commission annual report shows data mismatches, discrepancies

    The trends of submissions and disposals of RTI applications, as conveyed by the annual report of the central information commission, suggests that the data submitted public authorities, ministries and departments has not been examined adequately.

    By Venkatesh Nayak

    The central information commission’s 2020-21 annual report, prepared in accordance with the mandate under Section 25 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, contains a wealth of statistics, all of which require a detailed analysis and comparison with the data published in the previous year’s annual report.

    Is there a pattern to the disposal of RTI applications across key ministries, departments and public authorities and the performance of the various union territories administrations?

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    2,182 of the 2,275 central level public authorities registered with the central information commissioner (CIC) submitted their RTI statistics for preparing the latest annual report. According to the CIC, this amounts to 95.91 per cent compliance. While the number of registered public authorities increased by 82 over the figure of 2019-20, this figure is much lesser than the 2,333 public authorities which had registered with the CIC in 2012-13.

    Further, according to the RTI online facility set up for electronic submission of RTI applications, there are 2,464 public authorities at the Central level. Despite 16 years of implementation of the RTI Act, all public authorities are not dutifully registering themselves with the CIC for filing RTI-related returns and even among those registered, over 200 of these do not comply with the reporting requirement. This is cause for concern.

    Downward trend

    According to the annual report, 13,33,802 (13.33 million) RTI applications were received across the reporting public authorities in 2020-21. This is 2.95 per cent fewer RTI applications than the 2019-20 figure (13,74,315 or 13.74 million). It appears that there was only a marginal decline in the number of RTI applications filed during the first year of the pandemic as compared with the previous year which recorded the highest number of RTI applications filed with central public authorities since the enforcement of the law in 2005.

    The total figures presented in the annual report include the RTI application statistics from the union territories administration as well. So, if the figure of 1.25 lakh (125,000) RTI applications filed with the union territories is deducted, the total figure for the central level public authorities, the number of RTI applications filed with them falls to 12.08 lakhs (1.20 million) for 2020-21. Central level public authorities (minus union territories) received 12.39 lakh (1.23 million) RTI applications in 2019-20. So the reduction in the number of RTIs files in 2020-21 is only 2.48 per cent. This suggests that the pandemic did not prove to be a dampener. Instead, people continued to seek information from various ministries much like before;

    The biggest fall in the number of RTI applications received during the pandemic year was reported by the Ministry of Finance (including banks, insurance companies and other finance and tax related public authorities) with 21,657 fewer RTI applications coming its way in 2020-21 followed by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs reporting a shortfall of 20,269 RTI applications as compared with the 2019-20 figure.

    Upward Trend

    While the downward trend in the number of RTI applications filed in 2020-21 is noticeable across several ministries and departments, some of them reported a rising trend as well when compared with 2019-20. For example, the ministry of health and family welfare reported a 79.09 per cent increase in RTI applications during the pandemic year (60,423) as compared to that in 2019-20 (33,738 RTIs). The ministry of steel reported an increase of 149.40 per cent and the ministry of textiles 54.64 per cent.

    Ministries and public authorities which reported  up to 50 per cent increase in RTIs during the pandemic year are: the ministry of external affairs (48.11 per cent), the ministry of labour and employment (46.90 per cent), the ministry of rural development (41.18 per cent), ministry of electronics and information technology (39.61 per cent), the ministry of civil aviation (33.94 per cent), the ministry of home affairs (33.37 per cent), ministry of information and broadcasting (13.95 per cent), ministry of panchayati raj (13.54 per cent), ministry of ayush (13.27 per cent), ministry of women and child development (10.90 per cent), ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions (10.30 per cent), ministry of law and justice (5.67 per cent), ministry of coal (3.09 per cent), ministry of power (2.41 per cent), ministry of social justice and empowerment (2.40 per cent), ministry of housing and urban affairs (2.12 per cent), and the ministry of science and technology (2.01 per cent).

    It is clear from the above figures is that both line ministries which were involved in coordinating relief efforts (health, labour, home etc.) and several ministries looking after infrastructure reported a hike.

    Trends with regard to fees collected

    According to the annual report, a total of Rs. 66.87 lakhs was collected by way of application and additional fee (reproduction charges) from RTI applicants in 2020-21. This is a short fall of more than a quarter (26.62 per cent) of the amount collected in 2019-20 (Rs. 91.13 lakhs or Rs. 9.11 million);

    As regards the breakups, the pandemic year accounted for Rs. 45.53 lakhs (Rs. 4.55 million) collected in the form of application fees – a shortfall of 20.38 per cent over the previous year’s total of Rs. 57.18 lakhs (Rs. 5.71 million).

    The shortfall in the collection of additional fees (Rs. 21.34 lakhs or 2.13 million) was more than a third (37.15 per cent) as compared to the additional fees collected for reproducing information in 2019-20 (Rs. 33.95 lakhs or 3.39 million).

    The trends with regard to the collection of application fees raise two important issues. First, as explained above, the shortfall in the number of RTI applications was only 2.95 per cent across the over 2,000 central level public authorities including the union territory administrations during the pandemic year. If the number of RTI applications submitted in the union territories is deducted, the decline in the number of RTI applications during the pandemic year is only 2.48 per cent. This ought to have corresponded with the shortfall in the collection of application fees. However, the shortfall in application fees collected is ten times higher than the shortfall in the number of RTI applications filed. The annual report does not contain any observation or comment about this mismatch.

    Damn statistics

    More importantly, if the total amount of application fee collected is only Rs. 45.53 lakhs, this can account for only 4,55,300.09 applications submitted during the pandemic year. Were the remaining 8.78 lakh (878,502) RTI applications (out of 13.33 lakhs or 1.33 million) submitted and processed without the accompanying application fees? According to the RTI rules notified in 2012, an RTI applicant who does not belong to below the poverty line family is required to pay Rs. 10 per RTI application for it to even be processed. Under Section 7(6) of the RTI Act, only BPL applicants are exempted from paying both application fee and additional fees (reproduction charges). It is highly unlikely that such a large majority of RTI applications were submitted by BPL applicants. This mismatch between the number of RTI applications received and the quantum of application fee collected is mysterious;

    Perhaps the discrepancy between the number of RTI applications clocked and the amount of applications fees collected during the pandemic year might be due to the transfer of RTI applications between public authorities where every public authority which receives an RTI application by way of transfer under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act as a fresh application and adds it to its total. In other words, the same RTI application might be accounted for multiple times depending on how many times it was transferred between public authorities. An additional factor could also be the double counting of RTI applications which are forwarded by one CPIO to another within the same public authority as is common practice. If this is true the total number of RTI applications filed uniquely i.e., after deducting the number of times they were transferred or forwarded might be much lower than the total figure reported in the annual report.

    Transfer of RTI applications

    According to the annual report, a total of 1.95 lakh RTI applications were transferred between public authorities during the pandemic year. This is 6.78 per cent more than the number of RTI applications transferred in 2019-20 (1.82 lakh or 182,988).

    Even after accounting for the number of RTI applications, officially recognised as having been transferred between public authorities, the mystery about the mismatch between the number of RTI applications filed and the quantum of application fee collected during the pandemic year does not clear up. A similar mismatch is noticeable in the comparative figures in the annual report for previous years. Even if this is just a case of oversight, it has a glaring connotation to the Central Information Commission’s work of ensuring that the narrative part of its annual report matches with the data. Or is there more to it?

    Macro-level rejection trends

    According to the annual report, a total of 51,390 RTI applications were rejected by public authorities during the pandemic year. This is 11.9 per cent fewer RTI applications rejected than what was done in 2019-20 (58,364 rejections). According to the annual report, the proportion of RTI applications rejected during the pandemic year was 3.85 per cent, a tad lesser than the 4 per cent reported in 2019-20.

    However, there is a discrepancy between the total number of rejections and percentage as calculated at row #7 of the data-tables contained in Annexure I of the annual report on the one hand, and the total displayed at the bottom of the data-tables on the other hand, after the clause-wise rejections are accounted for. The figure mentioned at the bottom of the data-table is 53,537 instances of rejection. This is a discrepancy of more than 2,147. In some cases, the totals in row #7 and the total at the bottom of the data table tally with each other. How can this happen in this era of computerised tables?

    The CIC has not elected to comment on this discrepancy. If 53,537 rejections are taken as the correct figure because it is backed up by clause-wise data, the total rejections amount to 3 per cent of the total number of RTI applications that were available for processing (backlog from 2019-20 plus fresh receipts during the pandemic year). If the rejections are taken to be a proportion of only the fresh receipts during the pandemic year, the figure is 4.01 per cent. i.e., a tad more than the rejections reported in 2019-20. So how did the CIC arrive at the figure of 3.85 per cent is yet another mystery.

    Dubious others

    Almost two-thirds of the RTI applications appear to have been rejected for reasons other than permissible grounds contained in Sections 8, 9, 11 and 24 of the RTI Act. The rejection under the dubious “Others” category accounts for 32.29 per cent (17,286 instances) of the total number of rejections. It might be just a consolation that this figure has reduced since previous year when the number of rejections recorded under the “Others” category was 38.69 per cent.

    An end note

    Does all of this inspire confidence? It must be pointed out that the CIC does not appear to have examined the data submitted by public authorities, ministries and departments adequately. After 16 years of enforcement of the RTI Act, the CIC must make the effort to redefine its role from being a mere accountant of RTI statistics to that of an auditor of the performance of ministries, departments and public authorities.

     

    Venkatesh Nayak is an RTI activist and he works for the Commonwealth Human Rights Institute. The views expressed here are his personal views. 

     

    Imaga: Wikimedia  /  Author: Saachith

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