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How accurate are GoI's annual RTI receipt figures? Need to initiate fact finding inquiry

By Venkatesh Nayak* 

There appears to be strong evidence of a unique RTI application being counted multiple times by public authorities while reporting statistics to the Central Information Commission (CIC) periodically. I make this claim based on my own portfolio of RTI applications registered on the Union Government's RTI Online Facility after comparing it with the data that I maintain privately.
For several years now, I have circulated preliminary analysis of the data with regard to RTI applications, first appeals and rejections published by the Central Information Commission in its reports showing trends in receipts and disposals. Readers may click here to access a detailed report of the most recent edition of such analysis for the year 2020-21. In recent years, while analysing the CIC's claims about the total number of RTI applications received across public authorities, in any given year, I have had a nagging doubt which I did not express publicly due to lack of supportive evidence. I have always wondered whether the public authorities are counting every application that they receive from another public authority by way of transfer under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act as a unique RTI application and adding it to their tally while submitting periodic returns to the CIC.
Readers who have used the Union Government's RTI Online Facility for submitting RTI applications and first appeals and paying additional fees to access copies of government records, will be familiar with the "View History" button that is available for some time now on the Main Menu. This facility is activated through an OTP sent to an applicant's email address which is used while submitting every RTI application for contact purposes. When accessed in this manner, this View History Page throws up the entire log of RTI applications and appeals submitted by an individual and the action by public authorities on such requests.
Last Friday, I tried to submit an RTI application to the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) about one of their welfare schemes as adequate data about implementation was not being displayed on its dedicated website. The application went through but the payment gateway failed to authenticate the fee payment despite deducting Rs. 10/- from my account. So immediately, I sent an email with a complaint to the email addresses mentioned on the RTI Online Facility. Today, after checking my Inbox for a response, in vain, I decided to use the "View History" button to check if my latest RTI application had been accounted for. It is not yet accounted for. However, having been through a similar experience last year, I am hopeful that the Web Manager will revert soon after confirming fee receipt status from the Bank. This is how I obtained the RTI application registration number last year when the RTI Online Portal failed to generate the same immediately after receiving fee payment. The Web Manager pays attention to such complaints dutifully and emails to check multiple times whether the registration number has been sent or not after receiving the complaint, after sorting out the technical glitch.

Evidence gathered from the RTI Online Facility points to overcounting of RTIs

After entering the OTP and accessing my RTI filing history, I noticed that my latest application had not been registered. But what I discovered next was shocking. My View History page showed that I had filed 799 RTI applications between August 2018 and 09 May, 2022.
Since May 2014, I have been maintaining a database of my RTI applications on a spreadsheet. Between May 2014 and now, I have filed only 399 unique RTI applications. If the latest RTI application filed with MoHUA is included, the number reaches 400. Between August 2018 and 09 May, I had filed only 221 unique RTI applications and some of them were not even submitted to any public authority in the Union Government. Some of them have been submitted to public authorities under State Governments.
I am quite certain that I have not missed out recording details of any RTI application in my database, so far. So, the figure of 799 is definitely the result of counting every RTI application that was transferred within the Union Government, from one public authority to another, as a unique RTI application. According to the portal 212 RTIs that I filed are still pending with various public authorities! Does this mean that I have not received replies in more than 90% of the 221 RTI applications filed between August 2018 and now? This is simply not true.

What does this imply?

If the phenomenon of counting every RTI application that is transferred under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act as a unique one is true in other cases also, then the fresh receipts for every annual year mentioned by the CIC in its Annual Reports are extremely likely to be an inflated figure. Even though the CIC's database mentions a small number of RTI applications transferred out under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act, separately, there is a strong possibility that the Central Public Information Officers might be counting every RTI that they receive- unique and transferred ones as separate RTIs while reporting to the CIC. In my own case the RTI Online Portal has inflated the number of RTI applications I submitted, more than 3.5 times.
So did public authorities under the Government of India receive 13.33 lakh (1.33 million) unique RTI applications in 2020-21 or 13.74 lakh (1.37 million) RTIs in 2019-20?
The CIC must initiate a fact finding inquiry into this phenomenon. Readers will recall, the CIC's Annual Report is presented in Parliament before public disclosure, every year. Surely, Parliamentarians and citizens who elect them have the right to know accurate statistics with regard to the number of RTI applications that reach the Union Government every year.
---
*With Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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