Tuesday, September 13, 2011
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We need to take lessons from the experience of RTI Act before implementing the right to public service

The purpose of any law is to solve people’s problems. The Indian Constitution also promotes the concept of judicial redressal at your door step. A law is meant for speedy justice and if it is pro-litigation or promotes further litigation, the purpose is defeated.Sadly, that is what most of our Indian laws do. Even recent enactments like the Right To Information (RTI) Act and the Right to Public Service Act, which is being implemented in several States of India, compel the public to make rounds of the offices, appellate authorities and ultimately, the state or central commissions. The aggrieved can further approach the High Court joining the long pendency list.

My experience with the RTI Act has been that only 50 per cent of the people who approach the state or central commissions are those who are denied information. Other half gets the information but with a delay for which they want the public information officer (PIO) to be held responsible and penalised. Some also feel they should be compensated for the harassment which is justified because they come to the commission after facing disappointment at two levels: firstly from the public information officer and then from the first appellate authority.

Such a long redressal process not only breeds frustration among applicants, the appeal also takes up the precious time of state or central commission which can instead be utilised to hear more important cases. Due to acute shortage of staff as well as infrastructure in public offices, the conflict of interest between the designated officers and the applicants is bound to aggravate further instead of abating.

A long redressal process not only breeds frustration among applicants, the appeal also takes up precious time of commissions which can be utilised to hear more important cases. If the first appellate authority is given a power to impose penalty or award some minimal compensation, the matter can be sorted out at an initial stage.

Now, if the first appellate authority is given a power to impose penalty or award some minimal compensation on verification of the applicant’s claims, the matter can be sorted out at an initial stage.The Right To Service Act can also be revised to make it mandatory on the part of public authority or the department concerned to release the compensation amount to the applicant along with delivery of service (where delivery of service is delayed). If all the laws are enacted in a similar manner, the pendency at the state and central commissions as well as the High Courts can be easily dealt with. In addition, we need to review the inherent defect in the existing system of Indian legislation, which does not necessitate assessment of manpower and infrastructure requirements before enacting a new law.

The fallout of such a deficiency is evident with the RTI Act.  The public information officer (PIO) is meant to perform the RTI-related tasks along with his normal duty. Not only he sources the required information for an applicant, he needs to attend hearings at the commissions and courts besides participating in official meetings on non-RTI matters. In such a scenario, public work is bound to suffer hence defeating the whole purpose of enacting the law. The government should have already spared resources before implementing the RTI Act. The ambitious Right to Service Act will face similar problems if the authorities don’t wake up to the crisis by not only cutting down on litigation but also offering adequate resources to handle the workload.

H C Arora is a practising lawyer at the Punjab and Haryana High Court and president of the RTI Activists Federation, Punjab

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