Understanding the Right to Information

Posted by Elonnai Hickok at Sep 28, 2011 08:45 AM |
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Elonnai Hickok summarises the Right to Information Act, 2005, how it works, how to file an RTI request, the information that an individual can request under the Act, the possible responses and the challenges to the citizen and the government. She concludes by saying that there are many structural changes that both citizens and governmental officers can make to improve the system.


The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) was created in 2005 and marked an important time in Indian legislative history. The Right to Information enables citizens to hold the government accountable and ensure that it is a transparent body. Questions that can be asked by the citizen to the government range from anything that may concern to some meeting notes to why a teacher is not present in a public school, etc. In the current RTI system there are many challenges that are inhibiting the government’s efficient delivery of the RTI as a service to the people. This has changed the concept of how the citizens view the RTI, as the government feels harassed and the citizens feel as though their rights are being unjustly denied. Additionally, individuals have turned the RTI into a redressal mechanism rather than a way to ensure transparency and learn/understand how their government is functioning. The use of the RTI as a redressal mechanism has created a relationship of animosity between the government and citizens. The below note outlines the ecosystem of the RTI and notes specific challenges that both citizens and the government face.[1]

The RTI Ecosystem

RTI work flow

  • An individual files an RTI with the central/ state public information officer (PIO) or a specific PIO. PIOs are often not trained, and rarely apply for the position, but are instead designated.
  • Within five days the information is to be forwarded to the correct PIO.
  • The PIO must open a file and dispose of the request within 30 days.
  • If the PIO fails to reply to the applicant by either approving or denying a request, the PIO is liable to pay a fine of Rs. 250 for each day of delay.
  • If information is electronically uploaded, it is stored in any format the officer chooses (jpeg, pdf, html, etc).
  • Except for land records and staff records, files are retained for a maximum of one year.
  • If the PIO does not dispose of the request, there is scope for an appeal within 30-45 days to the appellate authority.
  • There is scope for a second appeal to the information commissioner if the authority does not respond within 90 days or the answer is found to be unsatisfactory.
  • The final decision of the information commissioner is binding.

Filing an RTI request

Though there is no specific format an individual must follow when submitting an RTI, when filing a request, individuals must include:
  • His /her name and address.
  • The name and address of the public information officer (PIO).
  • The particulars of information/documents required (limited to 150 words and one subject matter).
  • The time period of the information required.
  • Proof of payment.
  • Signature.
  • Proof if the individual is a BPL holder.[2]

Information that an individual can request under the RTI Act

  • Inspection of work, documents, and records
  • Taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records.
  • Taking certified samples of material.
  • Obtaining of information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, and video cassettes, or in any other electronic mode, or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer, or in any other device.
  • Obtaining the status of an RTI request or complaint.
Note: If an individual is requesting third party information, the PIO must inform the third party and provide the individual the opportunity to state a reason for not disclosing the information.

Accepted format of requested materials and records

  • Material requested can be in any format including: records, documents, memos, emails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, and data material held in any electronic form.
  • Records requested can include: any document, manuscript and file, any microfilm, microfiche and facsimile copy of a document, and reproduction of image or images embodied in such microfilm (whether enlarged or not), and any other material produced by a computer or any other device.

Possible Responses to an RTI request

An information officer can respond to an RTI in the following ways:
  • Transfer request to appropriate PIO within five days and notify the applicant about the transfer.
  • Provide the requested information within 30 days.
  • Reject the request information within 30 days stating the reasons for rejection, the period within which an appeal against such rejection may be preferred, and the details of the appellate authority.
  • Not respond to the applicant. If no response is received within 30 days the officer is liable for a penalty of Rs. 250 per day.

Appeal/Complaint Process

  • First appeal can be filed after 30 days or if the information given was unsatisfactory. The appeal must include: name and address of the appellant, name and address of the PIO involved, brief facts leading to appeal, relief sought, grounds for appeal, and copies of the application or documents involved, including copies of the reply, if received from the PIO.
  • Second appeal must contain: name and address of the applicant, and name and address of the PIO involved, particulars of the Order including the number if any against which the appeal is preferred, brief facts leading to the appeal, if appeal/complaint is preferred against deemed refusal then the particulars of the application, including number and date and name, address of the PIO to whom the  application was originally made, relief sought, grounds for the relief, verification by the applicant, any other information which the commission may deem necessary for deciding during the appeal, self attested copies of the application or documents involved, copies of the documents relied upon by the appellant and referred to in the appeal, and an index of the documents referred to in the appeal.
  • A complaint must include: name and address of the complainant, name and address of the state PIO against whom the complaint is being made, facts leading to the complaint, particulars of the application [number, date, name and address of the PIO (three copies)], relief sought, grounds and proof for relief, verification of the complainant (three copies), index of documents referred to in the complaint, and any other necessary information.[3]

Challenges to the Citizen

Knowing the correct Public Information Officer

Knowing which public information officer to mail in the RTI request is the first difficulty that an individual faces. As noted above in 2008 there were a total of 73,256 recorded public information commissioners in the State of Karnataka. New public information commissioners are created every day, because the RTI extends not only to any department of the government, but to any sub-contracted company, organization, school, or NGO that is receiving government funding and doing work on behalf of the government directly or indirectly. Lists of PIOs can be found on department bulletin boards and websites, but there is no clear method for an individual to know what information each PIO is the custodian over. Thus, they are left to determine on their own, and rely on the PIO to forward their application to the correct individual.

Filing in the correct format

Though it is stated in the law what language an RTI request will be accepted in, and what information should be included – individuals are often unaware of the guidelines and unaware of how to correctly fill out an RTI request. An incorrectly formatted request is one of the major reasons for rejection of a request by the PIO.


In the State of Karnataka, RTIs can be filed only in two languages: Kannada and English. By law, RTI responses are given only in the language that the department works in on a daily basis, and in English. The information that is supplied through the request is given in its original language. For example, if you ask for a document that is originally in Marathi, the document will be photo copied and sent to you. No translation of documents takes place, because it is not the job function of the officer to translate documents.


If an individual is denied information, or does not receive a reply within 30 days, they have the option of seeking an appeal through an appellate authority. In 2008 Karnataka had 5416 Appellate Authorities.  Currently, because of the backlog in appeal cases and the slow functioning of the system, an individual might have to wait for upto one year for his/her appeal to be heard. Often at this point the information is no longer relevant or needed.


In some cases individuals are denied a request for information based on the grounds that it would invade the privacy of the public officer. This is sometimes the case and sometimes not the case. Finding the right balance between the right to information and privacy is important, as protecting an individual’s privacy is crucial, but privacy should not be used as a reason for the government to be less transparent to the citizen and be used as a way to deny a citizen the information that they are entitled to.[4]

Challenges in the RTI System for the Government

  • Too many RTI requests and no system to record duplicates: As the figure shows above, in 2008, the Karnataka Government received 42208 RTI requests. Currently, it is not possible to know how many of these requests were duplicates since departments handling RTIs do not make it a practice to upload and organize filed RTI requests in a format easily accessible to citizens. Thus, there is no present system in place to track, upload, and store past RTI's in a meaningful way.
  • Additional overhead in recording, organizing, accessing, and storing data: In the current system every time an RTI request is received by the government, they open a new file for that request. Though in some ways this system of storage simplifies the process of finding past RTIs, it adds an additional overhead cost as photocopies must be made, new files created, and correctly added to the organized system. Each state follows its own method of recording, organizing, accessing, and storing data – thus, currently it is not possible to easily access the information from another state or combine information from two separate states.
  • Lack of compliance with section 4(d) pro-active disclosure: Under section 4 (d), the government is required to pro-actively disclose a pre-determined data to the public via websites and other useful modes. Currently there is very little compliance with section 4(d) from governmental departments. There are many factors that contribute to the low rate of compliance that exist including lack of resources and lack of proper enforcement. If governmental departments were to comply with section 4(d) then the load of RTI requests and the time each request must take to answer could be lightened considerably as the government could respond by pointing citizens to the already disclosed information.


Though the Right to Information is an important right, the above entry looks at some of the weaknesses and challenges in the system. There are many structural changes that both citizens and governmental officers can make to improve the system such as pro-actively disclosing information, ensuring that an RTI is filed correctly, and creating a system for organizing previously asked questions. Alongside of these structural changes it is also critical that a positive culture of transparency and accountability is fostered throughout society, thus encouraging citizens to actively engage with the government and exercise their right to information.


[1].I am grateful to N. Vikram Simha, RTI activist, for his insight and feedback into the RTI system.

[2].N. Vikram Simha, Right to Information Act of 2005: Guide for Citizens.

[3].N. Vikram Simha, Right to Information: Trend Ahead. Karanataka State Chartered Accountants Association, Bangalore

[4].N. Vikram Simha, RTI and Protection of Individual Privacy

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