19 Dec 2019: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) On RTI: A duty to publish
- The Right to Information Act’s role in fostering a more informed citizenry and an accountable government has never been in doubt ever since its implementation in 2005. But there have been persistent and growing misgivings.
- Section 4 of the Act calls for pro-active and voluntary dissemination of information, but only a few Central and State institutions have published relevant information; here, Rajasthan has taken a lead through its Jan Soochna portal.
- The other problem has been persisting vacancies in the State and Central Information Commissions, which was raised in a plea in the Supreme Court on Monday.
- A three-judge Bench led by the CJI allowed the request and asked the Centre and States to expedite filling up the vacancies. The CJI also curiously observed that officials were sensing fear leading to paralysis of action due to the working of the RTI.
- And going on to elaborate that the kind of queries that were sometimes being asked were not always in public spirit and were posed by people who had no “locus standi” in the matter regarding the queries.
- This argument by the CJI is difficult to accept as the RTI Act explicitly rejects the need for locus standi in Section 6(2) - “an applicant making request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information...”.
- This clause is present for vital reasons - seeking locus standi in order to respond to public requests could result in a chilling effect as public authorities (PAs) could choose to deny information to general citizens on subjective grounds.
- Besides, information commissioners and public officials have the authority to reject requests based on criteria that enable exemption from information disclosure. Data on RTI requests since 2005 show that the yearly rejection rate (requests rejected as a percentage of those received) has come down steadily to 4.7% in 2018-19.
- A change in the Act that seeks locus standi as a criterion could dramatically increase this number. Rather than focusing on locus standi, public authorities would be advised to provide for greater voluntary dissemination on government portals, which should ease their load.
- A Transparency Audit report submitted to the Central Information Commission (CIC) in November 2018 sought feedback from 2,092 PAs under the CIC to evaluate implementation of Section 4 of the Act. Only 838 (40%) responded and even here.
- The 35% of the PAs fared poorly with little transparency in parameters such as organisation and functions, budget and programme, e-governance, and other information disclosures.
- The other key misgiving with RTI implementation has been the persisting problem of vacancies in the CIC and State commissions - the CIC has four vacancies and 33,000 pending cases.
- Limiting RTI responses based on locus standi of the applicants could create a chilling effect. After the top court’s directions, this lacuna should be addressed by governments quickly.
2) On Kuldeep Singh Sengar conviction: Quick, not hasty
- The trial court verdict finding former BJP legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar guilty of raping a minor girl from Unnao in Uttar Pradesh underscores the merits of a justice system that managed to overcome initial apathy and take the investigation to its logical end.
- The Supreme Court transferred the Unnao cases involving Sengar and his associates from Lucknow to Delhi on August 1 and set a 45-day deadline for completing the trial.
- That the judgment is out before the end of the year, with the sessions court recording a conviction for rape under the IPC and penetrative sexual assault on a minor under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, shows a welcome sense of urgency.
- The sentencing, a few days on, holds out hope that the guilty politician may have to serve a minimum of 10 years or life imprisonment. Judge Dharmesh Sharma’s judgment has struck a blow for a system about which there is much cynicism over justice-denying delays.
- The history of this case also reveals the difficult path to justice that survivors of sexual offences have to tread. It highlights a principal systemic problem: how the unequal power relations between perpetrator and victim will almost succeed in silencing the survivor, but for the intervention of superior courts.
- Threatened into silence for two months, the survivor and her family ultimately reported the crime, only to face fierce retribution. She drew attention to her plight by threatening to set herself ablaze outside U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence in April 2018.
- Her father, arrested in a case under the Arms Act, died mysteriously in judicial custody. The girl also revealed that a week after the MLA’s crime, his associates once again abducted and raped her.
- It was only after the Supreme Court transferred the investigation to the CBI, and later the trial to Delhi, that justice was seen to be done. The court also pulled up the CBI for delaying the charge-sheet in the second case and not adhering to victim-friendly norms during the probe.
- A key lesson is that justice is not necessarily about giving the death penalty for rape through rapid-fire trials. It should mean that perpetrators should fear the certainty of punishment, and live with the taint of guilt for long years in prison.
- This is a point that knee-jerk law-making, of the sort that Andhra Pradesh has done, and the public clamour for executing all rape suspects, of the sort seen after the rape and murder of a veterinarian near Hyderabad, seem to miss.
- The essential framework of justice in rape cases should consist in a quick, but not hasty, probe by investigators and prosecutors sensitised to the travails of survivors, especially children, and a conducive atmosphere for them to depose during trial.
- The resulting lengthy jail terms will constitute both just deserts for grave crimes and an opportunity for remorse. Real deterrence is when there is certainty of punishment without justice-denying delays.