Right to information (RTI) applicant PM Ravindran filed a grievance with the centralised public grievance redress and monitoring system (CPGRAMS) RTI, which was redirected to the national highway authority of India (NHAI) in August 2020.
His grievance was that, after purchasing a State Bank of India (SBI) FASTag of Rs500 from a point of sale (POS) agent, he had received an SMS receipt stating that Rs100 was charged as the minimum balance and Rs200 was charged as a security deposit. He was puzzled about these deductions and, hence, had lodged a complaint with CPGRAMS. There was no reply either from the grievance redressal cell or NHAI.
Two years later, Mr Ravindran filed an RTI application on 16 August 2022 with the Kerala regional office of NHAI, for details on the progress of the forwarded complaint.
NHAI’s public information officer (PIO) did not forward it to SBI, which is the public authority in this case, but merely pontificated upon it to the applicant. The RTI application was, instead, forwarded by him to the M/s IHMCL (company constituted by NHAI, looking after such toll and electronic toll collection-related matters). IHMCL stated it was beyond its jurisdiction. Mr Ravindran met with indifference in the first appeal stage and so filed a complaint/ second appeal with the central information commission (CIC).
At the CIC's second appeal hearing on 14 September 2023, central information commissioner (CIC) Saroj Punhani issued an advisory to the NHAI, besides the order to provide the applicant with the required information.
Her advisory in the order reads thus: “It will be in the best interest of NHAI to put forth such clarification as regards the issue flagged by the RTI applicant in the public domain under FAQs section of their website under suo moto disclosure of RTI Act. This will also relieve the CPIOs from dealing with multiple RTI applications/ complaints of a similar nature seeking such records,” CIC Punhani directed the CPIO of NHAI to provide a copy to the competent authority of NHAI.
While summing up his arguments, the CPIO again emphasised the fact that the actual custodian of information sought regarding the deduction of toll/ FASTag through the POS agent is the concerned branch of SBI Bank and where NHAI & IHMCL have no role to play, as such. In this regard, they tried to liaise with SBI to facilitate the requisite information to the appellant; however, no response has been received from SBI. At the behest of the commission, the CPIO volunteered to make one more effort to procure the relevant information pertaining to the appellant’s averred complaint from SBI and provide the same to the appellant.
Ms Punhani observed that “The CPIO (of NHAI), instead of transferring the RTI application to the concerned record holder i.e. SBI under section 6(3) of RTI Act or accessing the same by invoking section 5(4) of RTI Act, has merely intimated the factual status of the actual custodian i.e. SBI of the information sought. In this regard, the CPIO is advised to exercise due diligence while responding to RTI applications in the future and ensure facilitation and proper assistance to the information seeker for getting the information.”
She also directed the CPIO “to revisit the contents of the RTI application and provide a revised categorical reply along with relevant available information after accessing the same from the actual custodian keeping in mind the applicability of relevant exemption clause section 8(1) of RTI Act. The said reply and information should be provided by the CPIO free of cost to the appellant within 15 days from the date of receipt of this order under due intimation to the commission.”
Mr Ravindran had sought the following information from NHAI, while also alleging the generation of black money while selling FASTags:
The present status of processing the original complaint to CPGRAM (complaint number 2361578 as communicated to you by helpline[email protected]
on 25 Aug 2020) and follow-up complaints/ emails.
• Whether the complaint/ emails have been forwarded to any other public authority as this application should be transferred to those public authorities, under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act for the information held with them till it reaches the public authority who is presently processing the complaint.
• Action taken on my emails dated 18/09/2020 and 23/08/2022. Copy of file notings should be provided. If file notings are not available, a copy of endorsements of the various public servants who have handled the complaint should be provided.
• Every public authority involved in processing this application and the communications under reference should provide the date of receipt of this application by them; and the date when the complaint was transferred to other public authority/ authorities under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act.
Mr Ravindran also sought information on the name, designation, postal address, telephone and mobile numbers, and email IDs of the SBI team to which the complaint (number 2361578) had been escalated by [email protected]
, as communicated to him through the NHAI’s email of 25 August 2020 and the details of follow up action taken.
(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".)