The central information commissioner has ordered the secretary of the ministry of defence to organise basic training for its central public information officers (CPIOs) due to their deliberate dereliction of duty in disseminating information. This comes against the backdrop of a recent study that revealed that the CPIOs, barely handling two to six Right to Information (RTI) applications per month, complain about overburden due to this additional responsibility.
In an order, Vanaja N Sarna, chief information commissioner (CIC) stated, “An advisory is issued under section 25(5) of the RTI Act to the secretary, ministry of defence to organise basic training programmes on the RTI Act or matters to the officers (respondent CPIO or public information officers-PIO and first appellate authority-FAA) and staff dealing with RTI matters working under them, duly sensitising them about the provisions of the RTI Act, particularly, adherence to the time frame provided under the RTI Act without any delay. The commission desires that this advice be viewed seriously and an action taken report be submitted to the commission within one month of receiving this order.”
The order is a sequel to a second appeal filed by RTI activist Commodore (Cmde) Lokesh Batra (retd). He did not get information on the direct benefit transfer (DBT) details which is provided to a specific unprivileged section and is included in the ex-servicemen contributory health scheme (ECHS). Cmde Batra did not get a reply within the stipulated time and through the route which he had requested, that is the email.
At the second appeal hearing, the CPIO explained, “since the information sought by the complainant was routed through multiple sections, which took considerable time, there was some delay.’’
CIC Sarna observed that though the CPIO may not have any “malafide intention, the delay defeats the purpose of the RTI Act.”
Ms Sarna states in her order, “there is no disputing the fact that following the laid down timeline is the essence of the RTI Act. It is pertinent to mention here that if the information is not provided within a reasonable time, the very purpose of filing the RTI application gets defeated. All the CPIOs should note that such a delay, as was found in the present case, defeats the very purpose of the RTI Act.’’
Cmde Batra argued that since the information was to be collected from the same public authority and not multiple ones, “necessary action may be initiated against the concerned CPIO.’’
This was in response to the CPIOs argument that he had to seek assistance from other section heads who did not respond promptly, despite several reminders. He also stated that he did not reply through the email due to ‘security issues’ as they “do not have the internet facility as the only intra-net facility is available, and therefore the complainant’s request was not accepted.”
Cmde Batra then argued, “sending a reply by email and providing the required information which is of public interest, is just an administrative issue which has nothing to do with national security and it is just an excuse given by the CPIO to deny the information.’’
The CIC accepted the CPIO’s reason but said he should have informed Cmde Batra about it.
The CIC strictly advised the CPIO “to remain cautious while handling the RTI applications in future and ensure that appellants are kept informed in a timely fashion if there is any difficulty in providing the information.’’
Quoting the example of the finance ministry, Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), who conducted the study on the CPIOs and First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) states, “7,100 CPIOs are handling the 194 public authorities under the ministry of finance. In 2018-19, they together received 222,000 RTI applications and this amounts to only two RTI applications per CPIO per month. One reason why many public authorities and their designated officers think RTI is a burden is because of the mindset that it is slow to change. Study after study has demonstrated the inadequacy of implementation of the proactive disclosure provisions of the RTI Act despite the Supreme Court of India declaring this as a mandatory obligation in the CBSE case cited above. RTI has been reduced to a request-driven process by the public authorities themselves who then complain about the increasing burden of information requests and complaints.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife and also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.