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CIC Annual Report: Pandemic no dampener on RTI, but how reliable is data?

By Venkatesh Nayak* 
The Central Information Commission (CIC) has uploaded on its website, the Annual Report (AR) for the year 2020-21 recently. This report, prepared in accordance with the mandate under Section 25 of the RTI Act, contains a wealth of statistics with regard to the receipt and disposal of RTI applications, first appeals and second appeals across Central level Public authorities during the reporting year. After quickly perusing this report and comparing the statistics with similar categories of data published in the Annual Report (AR) for the previous year, i.e., 2019-20, I have put together the first set of preliminary observations with regard to the manner of disposal of RTI applications across key ministries, departments and public authorities and the performance of the Union Territories (UTs) administration. The attachment here contains the dataset that I have compiled for these select agencies for the first year of the pandemic i.e., 2020-21 and the previous year, i.e., 2019-20. The second set of observations and comments will be released shortly.

Preliminary observations

The first set of my preliminary observations are categorised as below:
I. Compliance with regard to the reporting obligation
II. Trends with regard to the number of RTI applications (Downward and Upward trends)
III Trends with regard to backlog of RTI applications
IV Trends with regard to fees collected
VI Macro-level trends with regard to rejections

I. Compliance with regard to the reporting obligation

2,182 of the 2,275 Central level public authorities registered with the CIC submitted their RTI statistics for preparing the latest Annual Report (AR). According to the CIC, this amounts to 95.91% 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, 200-280 do not comply with the reporting requirement. This is cause for concern.

II. Trends with regard to the number of RTI applications

Readers may take note of the fact that the 2020-21 AR of the CIC is the first one which spans an entire year of the pandemic. So, statistics regarding the submission and disposal of RTI applications and appeals are of particular interest to RTI-watchers given the extended period of lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the pandemic and the work from home arrangement which affected the performance of hundreds of public authorities that were not at the frontline of the containment exercise.
a) Downward trend
i) According to the AR, 13,33,802 (13.33 million) RTI applications were received across the reporting public authorities in 2020-21. This is 2.95% fewer RTIs 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 RTIs filed during the first year of the pandemic as compared with the previous year which recorded the highest number of RTIs filed with Central public authorities ever (i.e., since the enforcement of the law in 2005);
ii) The total figures presented in the AR include the RTI application statistics from the Union Territories (UTs) administration as well. So, if the figure of 1.25 lakh (125,000) RTI applications filed with the UTs is deducted, the total figure for the Central level public authorities, the number of RTIs filed with them falls to 12.08 lakhs (1.20 million) for 2020-21. Central level public authorities (minus UTs) received 12.39 lakh (1.23 million) RTIs in 2019-20. So the reduction in the number of RTIs files in 2020-21 is only 2.48%. This is significant in itself, that the pandemic did not prove to be a dampener. Instead, people continued to seek information from various Ministries much like before;
iii) 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. Other Ministries with a shortfall of more than 1,000 RTI applications during the pandemic year are: Ministry of Road Transport (17,986), Ministry of Railways (17,972), Ministry of Human Resource Development (8,711) and the Ministry of Defence (5,812). Delhi Police also reported a shortfall of 5,812 RTI applications in 2020-21;
iv) Other Ministries and Departments which received at least 1,000 fewer RTI applications are: the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (3,364), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (2,687), Ministry of Culture (2,355), Ministry of Environment and Forests (1,887), Department of Space (1,550), Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (1,274), Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (1,230);
v) The Supreme Court received 1,011 fewer RTI applications in 2020-21 as compared with the previous year. The Prime Minister’s Office’s 2020-21 total was 552 fewer than the previous year’s figure while Rashtrapati Bhawan received 461 fewer RTIs during the pandemic year;
vi) Among the UTs, Delhi reported 6,362 fewer RTI applications during the pandemic year as compared to 2019-20 followed by Chandigarh with a shortfall of 4,302 RTIs and Andaman and Nicobar Islands with a shortfall of 1,042 RTIs during the same period.
b) Upward Trend
i) 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, MoHFW reported a 79.09% increase in RTIs 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% and the Ministry of Textiles- 54.64%;
ii) Ministries and public authorities which reported up to 50% increase in RTIs during the pandemic year are: the Ministry of External Affairs (48.11%), Ministry of Labour and Employment (46.90%), Ministry of Rural Development (41.18%), Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (39.61%), Ministry of Civil Aviation (33.94%), Ministry of Home Affairs (33.37%), Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (13.95%), Ministry of Panchayati Raj (13.54%), Ministry of Ayush (13.27%), Ministry of Women and Child Development (10.90%), Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (10.30%), Ministry of Law and Justice (5.67%), Ministry of Coal (3.09%), Ministry of Power (2.41%), Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (2.40%), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (2.12%), and the Ministry of Science and Technology (2.01%).
What is interesting 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.
iii) Other prominent public authorities which reported a significant increase in RTI applications received during the first year of the pandemic are: NITI Aayog at 52.68%, Delhi High Court at 42.97%, Indian Air Force at 40.70% and the Cabinet Secretariat at 2.65% as compared with 2019-20. The UT of Lakshadweep reported an increase of 40.43% in 2020-21 as compared with the previous year.

III Trends with regard to backlog of RTI applications

i) According to the AR 3.48 lakh (348,410) RTI applications were pending from 2019-20 at the beginning of the pandemic year i.e., 2020-21. This is 12.35% higher than the backlog figure (310,110) reported in 2019-20 pending from 2018-29;
ii) The Ministry of Defence reported the highest backlog of all with 119,474 RTIs pending at the start of the pandemic year. The Indian Army accounted for the bulk of this backlog with 107,601 RTIs pending from 2019-20 at the start of the pandemic year. Interestingly a similar figure is mentioned for the backlog for the previous year i.e, pending from 2018-29 raising doubts as to whether or not the 2020-21 figure is accurate;
iii) At second place the Ministry of Human Resource Development accounted for 62,682 pending RTIs in 2020-21 much higher than the figure of 50,887 reported for 2019-20. Next, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs accounted for 35,626 pending RTIs in 2020-21 as compared with a much lower figure of 28,515 during the previous year. The Ministry of Labour and Employment occupied the fourth place with a backlog of 9,790 RTI applications in 2020-21 as compared with a much lower figure of 6,355 in 2019-20. At fifth place the Ministry of Road Transport reported a pendency of 7,282 RTIs at the start of the pandemic year as compared with 5,850 RTIs pending at the start of the previous year. The Ministry of Ayush reported 6,052 pending RTIs during the pandemic year as compared with 4,198 RTIs that were pending in 2019-20;
iv) The Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions which is the nodal agency for implementing the RTI Act across the Central Government reported a more than four-fold increase in pendency of RTI applications in 2020-21 at 5,589. It was only 1,915 at the start of 2029-20. Similarly, the Ministry of Corporate affairs also reported a more than four-fold increase in pendency from 893 in 2019-20 to 4,052 at the start of the pandemic year. The Ministry of External Affairs also reported an almost four-fold increase in pending RTI applications in 2020-21 at 1,417- up from 293 during the previous year;
v) The Ministry of Finance also reported a significant increase in pendency at the start of 2020-21. The figure went up to 15,110 as compared with 9,697 pending RTI applications at the start of 2019-20. The Ministry of Culture reported a doubling of pendency from 439 in 2019-20 to 897 at the start of the pandemic year;
vi) With only 5,443 pending RTIs, the Ministry of Railways has reduced its pendency by almost three fourths in 2020-21 as compared to 13,193 pending RTIs at the start of the previous year. Similarly, the Ministry of Communications reported 4,972 pending RTIs at the start of 2020-21- much lower than 5,628 RTI applications which were reported pending at the start of 2019-20;
vii) Among the UTs, Delhi reported the highest number of pending RTIs at the start of the pandemic year at 31,146- up from 26,644 at the start of the previous year.
The increasing backlog RTIs across several ministries and public authorities is a major cause for concern as they appear to have been pending from much before the onset of the first phase of the pandemic. The CIC has not bothered to address this issue in the narrative portion of its AR.

IV Trends with regard to fees collected

i) According to the AR a total of Rs. 66.87 lakhs (Rs. 6.68 million) 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%) of the amount collected in 2019-20 (Rs. 91.13 lakhs or Rs. 9.11 million);
ii) 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% over the previous year’s total of Rs. 57.18 lakhs (Rs. 5.71 million);
iii) The shortfall in the collection of additional fees (Rs. 21.34 lakhs or 2.13 million) was more than a third (37.15%) as compared to the additional fees collected for reproducing information in 2019-20 (Rs. 33.95 lakhs or 3.39 million);
v) 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% across the more than 2,000 Central level public authorities including the UTs administration during the pandemic year. If the number of RTI applications submitted in the UTs is deducted, the decline in the number of RTI applications during the pandemic year is only 2.48%. 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 AR does not contain any observation or comment about this mismatch;
vi) Second, and more important, if the total amount of application fee collected is only Rs. 45.53 lakhs (Rs. 4.55 million), 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;
vii) 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 AR.

V Trends with regard to transfer of RTI applications

i) According to the AR, a total of 1.95 lakh (195,403) RTIs were transferred between public authorities during the pandemic year. This is 6.78% more than the number of RTI applications transferred in 2019-20 (1.82 lakh or 182,988);
ii) Even after accounting for the number of RTIs, 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 ARs for previous years. The CIC ought to consider paying attention to these matters in the narrative part of its ARs.

VI Macro-level trends with regard to rejections

i) According to the AR, a total of 51,390 RTI applications were rejected by public authorities during the pandemic year. This is 11.9% fewer RTI applications rejected than what was done in 2019-20 (58,364 rejections). According to the AR, the proportion of RTI applications rejected during the pandemic year was 3.85% a tad lesser than the 4% reported in 2019-20;
ii) However there is a discrepancy between the total number of rejections and percentage as calculated at row #7 of the datatables contained in Annexure I of the AR and the total that is displayed at the bottom of the datatables after the clause-wise rejections are accounted for. The figure mentioned at the bottom of the datatable for 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. So the discrepancy might be due a glitch in the data entry software of it might be due to errors committed during data entry. Wherever there is a discrepancy in the totals, the figure mentioned in row #7 is highlighted in red coloured font in the spreadsheet attached here for the convenience of readers and researchers;
iii) Strangely, 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% 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% i.e., a tad more than the rejections reported in 2019-20. So how did the CIC arrive at the figure of 3.85% is another mystery which it must clarify. Nothing in the AR for the pandemic year provides an explanation about this discrepancy;
iv) Further, during the pandemic year 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% (17,286 instances) of the total number of rejections. Nevertheless this is a significant reduction from the 38.69% rejections recorded under “Others” category in 2019-20.

End note

The above preliminary observations and comments on trends with regard to the submission and the disposal of RTI applications is only the first set. Soon I will disseminate the second set of preliminary analysis with regard to the clause-wise trends of rejection of RTI applications, the submission and disposal of appeals by public authorities and the CIC as well as trends with regard to the workload of Public Information Officers and First Appellate Authorities. Based on just the aforementioned first set of observations 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.

*Transparency Advocator, Bengaluru/New Delhi

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