Assam was one of the first States to appreciate people’s need and right to information, and accordingly in 2001, as soon as the Congress came to power in the State under Tarun Gogoi, the Right to Information Bill was put up for ectment in the State Assembly. The Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament in 2005 and became the law all over the country. But the fact remains that Assam was one of the earliest States to have thought of acknowledging the people’s right to information through an appropriate legislation. Unfortutely, good intentions in the matter of legislation are not always enough to ensure that a new law can really help people in asserting their rights. If the lawmakers were keen on a new law to eble people to have better access to information, there was, at the same time, no dearth of officials who were determined not to let people have access to information that they did not wish to share. It is this perverse attitude of government officers that has stood in the way of the Right to Information (RTI) Act becoming a major instrument of political and social change that it had the potential to be. It is largely because government departments are reluctant to share information that can recoil on their performance and efficiency or on corrupt practices that there is now a backlog of 6,220 pending cases of RTI complaints and appeals in the office of the Assam Information Commission. However, this huge backlog of pending cases has also been created by the post of one of the Information Commissioners having remained vacant for a long time. Assam’s Chief Information Commissioner, Himangshu Sekhar Das told jourlists and RTI activists last week that the Commission has three sanctioned posts—a Chief Information Commissioner and two information commissioners. Unfortutely, one post of information commissioner has been lying vacant since the tenure of Mohan Chandra Malakar, a retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife) expired in March 2014. In fact, when Das took charge on December 1, 2014, both the posts of information commissioners were vacant, following the expiry of the tenures of the previous incumbents. Not surprisingly, with three posts (including his) lying vacant for some time, the pendency of cases had increased. Even now one of the posts of information commissioner is still vacant.
The situation is similar to what has been happening in the judiciary. The judiciary is so bogged down with long-pending cases running into millions that people seeking legal relief know that there is a long wait ahead of them. As a result, a large number of people attempt to bypass the law by getting the law enforced by extrajudicial crimil agencies. Unless the huge pendency of 6,220 RTI complaints and appeals can be swiftly reduced to a mageable number, the very purpose of legislating the RTI Act may be totally defeated. If and when this happens, a large number of people who were hopeful of the RTI Act providing greater transparency and accountability in governce will get completely disillusioned, and their faith in the ability to get legitimate information about government departments within a set time-frame will be badly shaken. It is, therefore, imperative that the government should take all possible steps to ensure that people can continue to exercise their right to receive all legitimate information about government departments within the rigid time-frame set under the provisions of the RTI Act. Once the number of pending cases slows down the process of securing information, those government officers who are out to sabotage the RTI Act will completely succeed in their endeavour, and a piece of legislation designed to combat corruption by ensuring greater transparency and accountability in governce, will suffer premature oblivion. This must be prevented at all costs.