In a major, citizen-friendly decision, the general administrative department (GAD) of Maharashtra government has ordered all public authorities to mandatorily provide the facility of online hearing to the Right to Information (RTI) Act applicant, although COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted and physical hearings have become feasible.
In a general resolution (GR) passed on 17 May 2022, the state government has stated for all quasi-judicial hearings that, “due to the removal of COVID-19 restrictions, although the applicant has the facility of being physically present in offices, the officer concerned, should provide the alternative of online hearing also and should use his discretion for the same.”
It has also ordered that, for physical hearings, all COVID-19 protocol for health safety must be adhered to.
This is a major boost, particularly for second appeal hearings related to RTI matters, in the state information commissions. With over 100,000 second appeals pending in Maharashtra’s state information commission (MSIC), this choice of online facility would propel information commissions to dispose of cases, faster. It would curb the inconvenience of citizens to travel to and fro and is certainly a thumbs-up for transparency.
This important decision by the Maharashtra government is a major victory for a group of eminent citizens, who, under the online RTI Katta, run by activist Vijay Kumbhar, had taken up this issue soon after the first COVID-19 lock-down of March 2020.
While the judiciary had promptly switched over to the online mode of hearings, the MSIC did not get into that mode. The group, led by former central information commissioner and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi, sent a legal notice to Sumit Mullick, MSIC, reminding him that access to information is a facet of the right to freedom of speech and expression as contained in Article 19(1)(a) and, as such, it is a fundamental right of the citizens under the Constitution of India.
The legal notice to the MSIC stated that, faced with the unprecedented and extraordinary outbreak of a pandemic, the chief justice of India, judges of Bombay High Court and Delhi High Court have risen to the occasion and adopted the use of video conferencing (VC) platforms such as Zoom. Therefore, the MSIC can facilitate earliest conduct of all hearings through video conferring and come out as a role model in compliance of the directions of the Supreme Court.
Giving the examples of the judiciary, the legal notice reminded the MSIC that, “the Indian courts have been proactive in embracing advancement in technology in judicial proceedings. The Indian judiciary has incorporated information and communication technology (ICT) systems through the e-courts integrated mission mode project (e-courts project) as part of the national e-governance plan (NeGP). The robust infrastructure in place has reduced conventional impediments and legal uncertainty surrounding the use of virtual courts. ICT enabled infrastructure is available across all courts including the district judiciary which constitutes the initial interface of the court system with the citizen. So, why not the information commissions!”
Interestingly, in the meanwhile, the Amravati Bench of the MSIC had already been conducting its hearing proceedings through online video conferencing platforms. So, the activists requested that the MSIC must give appropriate directives of online hearing to its eight information commissions located at Mumbai, Greater Mumbai, Amravati, Aurangabad, Konkan, Nashik, Nagpur, and Pune as per the provision of Section 15(4) of the RTI Act, 2005.
This group of citizens went a step further and wrote to the chief secretary that all quasi-judicial hearings of all government departments should be held at all times by video conferencing, even after COVID-19 restrictions. They served a legal notice to the state government through its chief secretary, urging it to issue appropriate guidelines and directions to all the public authorities (PAs) in the state of Maharashtra to resume at the earliest, all the hearing proceedings conducted by them under the respective statute (Acts) applicable to the concerned PAs, by adopting an appropriate online video conferencing platform as the government of Maharashtra may deem fit.
Since the state government did not respond, Mr Gandhi, and Mr Kumbhar, along with noted RTI activists Vivek Velankar, Bhaskar Prabhu, Jugal Rathi and Mohammed Afzal, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court, through advocate Sunil Ahya, who did it pro bono.
The petitions were filed against the chief secretary of the state government as well as the MSIC.
In a twin victory, the High Court gave an order in their favour. It directed all public authorities in Maharashtra to adopt an appropriate online video conferencing platform for conducting hearings of cases in their respective departments as well as for second appeals under the RTI Act.
Thereafter, Mr Gandhi made a presentation on 10 March 2022 to principal secretary Abha Shukla and her committee. He says, “They agreed that this would be a big saving and convenience for government and citizens. The Maharashtra government has now issued a GR formalising this. This is a significant step for adopting technology by the government and the public servants deserve credit for this. Hope all state governments accept online hearings for all quasi-judicial hearings. Maharashtra has shown the way.’’
Mr Kumbhar says, “This is extremely good news as it would save the travelling time of citizens and it would certainly help in clamping corruption. It’s a citizen-friendly move and every state government should adopt online hearings as a permanent feature.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and 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”.)