By Rajeshwar Singal | PUBLISHED: 11, Aug 2010, 12:12 pm IST | UPDATED: 15, Apr 2011, 12:12 pm IST
This Act is aimed at empowerment of common man in India in his quest for information from a public authority in States or at the Central level, in most simple manner. This brief article, seeks to bring out the continued abuse of power by many public authorities, reflecting their age old mindset, which is totally removed from reality of the sufferings of common man at the hands of bureaucracy and similar public bodies.
This writeup has been attempted in a simple manner, more from the point of view of a common man frustrated in his attempts at seeking rightful information, which are thwarted in most unpleasant manner by public authorities. That is why, there is no ‘research’ approach to this article. This article is not making any references to earlier decided case law or views/comments of any statutory bodies or eminent persons. It simply refers to few instances of denial of information by public authorities, in manners which reflect arbitrariness and wrong application of exception clauses of the Act for denying information.
In recent years, we have seen much of RTI in news as superior judiciary withheld its application on themselves, and then gave in under much public pressure. This reflects holier than thou attitude of many institutions in which so far general public had reposed considerable faith. As per news, even the Prime Minister was said to be in favour of amendments to the Act, to exclude certain such institutions from the purview of the Act, but later was advised by UPA Chairperson against it.
The rule of law must prevail and law should be equally applicable to all. There should be no exceptions. Few exclusions are already incorporated into the Act, which appear to be fair and balanced. But there seems to no case for exclusion of information as claimed by superior judiciary as they are equally covered under the Income Tax Act and other penal statutes of the country.
The Preamble to the Act reflects its spirit. It aims at checking arbitrariness by a public authority. For this purpose every public authority is required to publish its activities, and details of its staff, as per the provisions of the Act. Further, public authorities are required to publish names, addresses, and related details of its public information officers and appellate authorities. The Act also requires upon a public authority to give reasons for its administrative and quasi judicial actions, affecting public.
This is perhaps the most scary part of the Act for any public authority. For example, say, promotions are made of certain number of officers as per given norms, by a public authority.
But flouting these norms, and perhaps guidelines of judicial decisions in similar matters, one or two officers are not promoted, even though they were suitable as per guidelines. This would amount to arbitrariness and direct violation of norms and judicial precedents. In such cases, the public authority becomes accountable for giving reasons under the RTI Act, for its administrative action.
But as per real instances, public authorities flout even the RTI Act’s mandate and invent various reasons for denying information on the reasons for their actions. Public authorities know fully well that if the reasons are released as information under the Act, the petitioner can straight away file criminal and civil cases against such arbitrary actions and claim damages also.
As per the Act, information can be sought from records dating back to twenty years. While it has to be accepted that in office of any public authority a small percentage of record is of permanent nature and most other type of record can be weeded out after five years or so. Further, due to poor maintenance of record, public offices being in rented buildings which are shifted frequently, large sections of record get destroyed and it is virtually impossible to dig out record say more than two years old. While this is no excuse for any public authority to deny information, it is now increasingly mandatory for them to improve their record keeping.
But at times, public authorities come up with ingenuous reasons in delaying information with the fervent hope that with delay, the applicant may perhaps lose interest. Some types of reasons for delaying and even denying information, are:
1) The records are voluminous and it will take a very long time to sift them;
2) We are busy in annual transfers of officers and cannot spare time in sifting voluminous records;
3) Due to shifting of hired buildings, some record seems to have got misplaced, or lost, and is not traceable;
As we know that there is no limit to creativity of a human mind, the public authorities keep inventing ever new reasons for denying information, which otherwise would jeopardize the very existence of the authority.
Real issues, Real problems
We can see some of the real life situations and problems in effective implementation of this Act. We can see that all these are nothing but manmade problems, with a view to thwart effective working of the Act.
Lowering of levels of PIO and Appellate Authority
In most public authorities, in recent years, the levels of officers who are designated as Public Information Officer (PIO) and Appellate Authority, have been lowered. Earlier officers at sufficiently senior level received RTI applications and were receptive to giving replies. Now, with lowering of levels, there is more resistance to release of information, as generally, in any public authority, it is at lower levels of hierarchy that abuse of power takes place. Now, at senior levels, officers in a public authority are not even aware of the RTI issues pending or rejected summarily at lower levels.
Double Standards and arbitrariness
Can there be double standards, reflecting nothing but arbitrariness, on the part of public authorities, in release of information which is available in registers and records that are subjected to periodical audit by internal audit and CAG’s audit? You may say, like me, no. You are correct. But that is what happened in case of information sought from Ministry of External Affairs about expenditure by its officers, which is reflected in records that are subjected to regular audit by both their own internal audit and AGCR on behalf of CAG.
We all know that any irregularity pointed out by audit can become a PAC matter examined by the Parliamentary Committee. So, if information available in any record of public authority is open for scrutiny by different audit teams and can also be called for scrutiny by the PAC, can there be any ground for not releasing it in reply to an application under the RTI Act?
This is exactly what happened in a case wherein the expenditure details available in records of an overseas office of Ministry of External Affairs were, were withheld under the RTI Act, on the ground that release of this information would harm India’s relations with friendly countries. This view was even upheld by the CIC. But it seems very strange that the information that can be seen and examined by audit officers of different levels from different audit bodies, that is to say, open public scrutiny, can be considered harmful to India’s relations with foreign countries, if released under the RTI Act.
Mythical beast called ‘Interrogatories’
Several public authorities, including haloed institutions like the Central Vigilance Commission, have developed a fear against RTI applicants releasing a mythical beast called the ‘Interrogatories’ in their applications. Interrogatories have been defined by The Law Lexicon, by P. Ramanatha Aiyar, as ‘a series of formal written questions used in the judicial examination of a party or witness’.
As mentioned above, several public authorities, including the revered ones like the CVC have summarily rejected RTI applications on the specious ground that the applications were in the form of interrogatories. They did not even go into merits and facts of the questions asked in the applications.
Why so? For the plain simple reason that the content of the questions was shocking and the public authorities would have undoubtedly been forced to admit their lapses in replies and that would lead to criminal or civil consequences. Now, once the applications are rejected on such ground, hardly any RTI applicant would be willing to get it redrafted in a manner that suits the public authority.
But, is there any expressly indicated exclusion of so called interrogatories anywhere in the RTI Act? The answer is plain simple NO. What does it mean then? It simply means that public authorities are becoming increasingly innovative and cook up ever new reasons to reject applications.
Coming back to the mythical beast interrogatories, does it mean that the average citizen, already distressed by rampant corruption and bureaucracy’s overlording attitude, has to go to petition drafters sitting in rickety chairs outside Tehsildar offices, or district courts, to get their RTI petitions drafted so that these are as per level of comfort of the public authority? Was the RTI Act as such not meant to empower the common man in his quest for information from any public authority in most simple manner?
Yes. That is why the application fee was kept so low. And that is also why the format of applications and even appeals was kept simple. In that background, raising the ogre of interrogatories for rejecting applications does not appear to be good. It goes against the very spirit of the Act.
Taking the same issue in a legal manner, as per the RTI Act itself, the proceedings under the Act have judicial sanctity. That being so, the public authority is simply a party to the proceedings. In that background, even if the questions are in the form of interrogatories, public authority cannot say no for giving reply.
A common man can even file an application under this Act which is neatly written by hand. An application need not necessarily be typed. However, some public authorities are known to have rejected the applications on the ground that they were not typed and were not legible.
Further, yet another type of wrongful rejection of the application was on the ground that application was not there in the envelop, even though the envelop did contain the application, which was duly destroyed by the public information officer after reading it’s queries. And the RTI applicant was sent a reply, with help of his address on the envelop in which he had sent the application. Yes, this amounts to playing a dirty trick on the applicant. Such tricks have been rampant in court notices. But now, this malady has hit RTI Act also.
Perhaps the most repugnant and cheap tactic being adopted by many public authorities to delay, reject, and frustrate the RTI applications and applicants is to claim that there is no postal order attached as application fee, alongwith the RTI application, whereas the applicants had duly attached the postal orders of requisite amount and even mentioned the number of postal order in the application.
I am sure you would be curious to know ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this trick which is downright dirty. Its plain simple fear rising in minds of the concerned public authority when the application is marked to them by any senior level or the dak section itself, and they see the contents of the application, the reply to which would clearly implicate them either in any civil or criminal proceedings or departmental action as such.
So, their ‘ever ready to please boss sahib’ clerks, upon seeing the application or after taking it to the boss sahib, conveniently scribble on the top of applications that these are not attached with the ‘ten rupee postal order’. And the application is sent back alongwith a rejection letter, or a letter reminding the applicant that he had not sent the RTI application fee.
The hapless applicant is then in half a mind to make another effort to wait in line at crowded post offices to buy a postal order, which are generally not available at all places, get a fresh print of his application and make another visit to post office and spend even more money on speedpost of his application copy. But what is the guarantee that even next time, the scared stiff public authority would accept his application and not play the dirty trick again.
WHY NOT HAVE ONLINE PAYMENT THROUGH CREDIT/DEBIT CARDS AS AN OPTION FOR APPLICATION FEE. Why are we sticking to the centuries old system introduced by the British in this country and perfected for misuse and abuse by our bureaucracy.
Most members in the Central Information Commission or CIC are retired bureaucrats and their affinity with their earlier colleagues in different public authorities, and general pro establishment attitude, can never be ruled out while deciding appeals at CIC level. It is not rare that when a public authority is cornered and in its inevitable replies under the Act, they face considerable embarrassment and perhaps retribution, they immediately rush to the CIC for more informal and personal meetings to get bailed out. This has to be checked, perhaps through induction of CIC members from among eminent persons of the society, and gradual reduction of bureaucrats from CIC.
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