In a strange reply, a public information officer (PIO) of a gram panchayat in Madhya Pradesh (MP) denied information to an applicant because according to the PIO, an ‘advocate’ does not come under the connotation of ‘citizen’, and hence, the former has no moral or legal obligation to take cognisance of the latter’s application filed under Right to Information Act (RTI).
Yogendra Shukla, the PIO and secretary of the Bahuribandh Gram Panchayat, Rewa district, refused information to RTI applicant advocate Krishanendra Shukla, who is a lawyer by profession, who had sought information about the infrastructure development works in the panchayat.
The applicant was compelled to file a second appeal. MP’s state information commissioner (SIC) Rahul Singh observed, in his order, that it is illogical and illegal to withhold information on the grounds that the RTI applicant is an advocate. Additionally, he slammed a penalty of Rs15,000 on the PIO for withholding the information
The secretary of the gram panchayat, citing a letter of a PIO of the revenue department, held a bizarre opinion during the second appeal hearing, that information under the RTI Act can be sought by any person, but the word ‘advocate’ does not come under the definition of the word ‘citizen’ since advocates are engaged in the legal profession after getting registered under the Bar Council of India, and therefore, they cannot be provided information under the RTI Act.
During the second appeal hearing, SIC Singh had summoned both, the secretary of the gram panchayat and the chief executive officer of the janpad panchayat. Mr Singh was surprised that the PIO was of the firm belief that an advocate cannot be a citizen.
The PIO reiterated, during the hearing, that, “PIO Rajesh Kumar Kaul working in the revenue department of Vallabh Bhavan had refused to provide the information to a Lucknow-based advocate Rudra Pratap Singh because he was a legal practitioner and an advocate, and the term ‘advocate’ does not come under the definition of the word ‘citizen’.”
Stating that “all citizens including ‘advocate’ have the right to seek information,” Mr Singh imposed a fine of Rs15,000 on the PIO.
Mr Singh wrote in the order, “Under Section 3 of the Right to Information Act, all citizens of India have the right to access information. It is illegal to deny information on the basis of occupation or class. Provision to withhold the information is available only in sections 8 and 9 of RTI Act.”
The commission has imposed a penalty of Rs15,000 on the gram panchayat secretary for withholding the information wrongly by giving this unlawful decision. The actual penalty was Rs25,000 but when Mr Singh inquired from the gram panchayat secretary about his salary during the hearing, it was Rs26,000. Therefore, exercising his discretionary power, Mr Singh reduced the amount of the fine from Rs25,000 to Rs15,000.
Advocate Shukla objected and argued for the imposition of the maximum penalty, but Mr Singh clarified that the purpose of punishment is for steady implementation of the RTI Act and not for revenge.
“Imposition of penalty is the discretionary power of the commission and also the commission needs to see the practical implementation of Act. The imposition of maximum penalty on the PIO might lead to a challenge in running his household,” SIC Singh told the RTI applicant.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is 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”.)