Such a parody! At one end, there is the special protection group (SPG), a paramilitary force whose sole objective is to provide proximate security to the prime minister (PM) of India. At the other, the PMO (prime minister's office), where visitors’ records need not be kept! This is revealed through a reply given under the Right to Information (RTI) by the central public information officer (CPIO) of the PMO, which states, “the Prime Minister ‘meets’ people from all walks of life, not necessarily upon formal request, which too may or may not be recorded.’’ The chief information commissioner YK Sinha in his order on 7th September, ordered, “It has no element of public interest,” and observed that it was a vague requisition for information from the RTI applicant.
RTI applicant Naresh Sharma sought information on 16 January 2019 on details of all visits to the PMO made by Dr Mustansir Barma from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). He asked for detailed information regarding each visit, such as time, purpose, and the officials in the PMO that Dr Barma interacted with.
The CPIO of the PMO strangely replied, “The Prime Minister `meets’ people from all walks of life, not necessarily upon formal request (which too may or may not be recorded). This office does not maintain a separate record of the number of times a particular individual has requested an appointment with the Prime Minister since he took over office.”
Isn’t it enough to raise eyebrows, considering the PM and PMO is an utterly sensitive precinct? The first appellate authority (FAA) with whom Mr Sharma filed his first appeal supported the CPIO’s reply.
Mr Sharma then filed a second appeal with the CIC, which was heard on 7 September 2021. Mr Sharma, during the audio hearing, argued that since Dr Barma was the head of a premier scientific institution, the information regarding his visit to the PMO should be available with the CPIO. However, during the hearing, he went beyond what he had requested in the RTI application and argued that he did not seek details of visits to the current PM but to previous PMs as well, going back to the past 20 years.
That, indeed, surprised the CIC because of which he found his request for information vague.
The CPIO, Parveen Kumar, who also participated in the hearing through the audio conference, stated that a categorical reply was provided to Mr Sharma informing him that their office does not maintain a separate record of the number of times a particular individual has requested an appointment with the PM since he took office.
Furthermore, the CPIO says the RTI application was “vague, loosely worded and a generic query, on perusal of which it could only be surmised that he was seeking information regarding the total number of visits made by Dr Mustansir Barma to the PMO during the tenure of the current PM, the record of which is not consolidated or collated by the PMO.”
CIC Mr Sinha observed that the query by the RTI applicant is indeed “vague, and part of a roving and fishing expedition, information regarding which is not held by the public authority in the form in which it is sought.”
To support his observation, Mr Sinha referred to the decision of the High Court of Delhi in the matter of Shyam Kunwar vs CIC and Ors., W.P. (C) 5099/ 2016 dated 30 May 2016 wherein it was held as under: “Upon perusal of the RTI application filed by the petitioner in which information of attendance of all teachers have been asked for the years between 1993 and 2001, this Court is of the opinion that the information asked for is stale and no element of public interest is involved. It seems to this Court that the petitioner’s queries are at best a fishing and roving enquiry to challenge ‘Mr. Arun Arya’s meteoric rise from UDC to the youngest ever Principal’.”
CIC Mr Sinha disposed of the second appeal. While the CIC came to the logical and correct conclusion after hearing both the parties, the fact is that the PMO not keeping a record of visitors to the office is surprising.
Former central information commissioner and RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, observed that “from the order, it appears the query is regarding the total number of visits made by Dr Mustansir Barma to the PMO during the tenure of the current PM, the record of which is not consolidated or collated by the PMO. A register of visitors would certainly be maintained. Still, it may be difficult to count the number of visits over five years, unless maintained on a computer. I would expect that it should be on a computer, in which case it should be easy to count the number of visits. However, if it is a manual register, it would require going through the registers of five years. Unfortunately, the order does not mention this.”
Observes RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, “I feel it is very strange that the PMO does not keep all records of visitors considering that it is a very sensitive office in terms of national security and the Prime Minister is the most important person of this country.”
(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”.