The world-renowned Auroville Foundation at Auroville in Tamil Nadu functions under the administrative control of the ministry of education as a statutory (autonomous) body under the government of India. It has been mired in controversy for the last two to three years regarding the difference of opinion in the implementation of the master plan to construct a township for 50,000 people; steered by the government entity along with the Foundation.
Since the Auroville Foundation is not a private entity but is under a public authority, it comes under the ambit of the RTI Act. Therefore, last fortnight central information commissioner (CIC) Heeralal Samariya slammed the public information officer (PIO) of the Auroville Foundation for denying information to an RTI applicant without quoting any exemption clauses under Section 8 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
CIC Samariya observed that “The CPIO (central public information officer) has not provided a substantiated response. In the course of denying the requested information, the CPIO has failed to claim any exemptions as allowed under the RTI Act. It is important to emphasise that when denying information, such denial must adhere to the provisions of the RTI Act.”
He further noted that “If any of the exemption clauses specified under section 8(1) of the RTI Act, 2005 are invoked, the CPIO is obliged to provide justification or establish the grounds for claiming such exemptions. Given these circumstances, the CPIO is directed to reevaluate the current RTI application and provide a detailed, point-by-point response based on the information available in their records to the appellant, without any cost, using a speed post.”
The CIC observed in his order that RTI applicant Ram Kumar asserted that the institution was embroiled in alleged mismanagement and opaqueness in its administration and therefore he demanded transparency under RTI. Hence, as a remedy, the RTI applicant urged the commission to direct the CPIO to provide the pertinent information and proposed imposing penalties on the CPIO for the delay.
Mr Kumar had requested the following information:
“Kindly verify if the Auroville Foundation's office, in any direct or indirect manner, transferred Government of India funds from accounts under its purview to the Central Public Works Department during the year 2022. Specifically, please provide the following details:
a. The exact amount of funds transferred.
b. The specific dates on which these transfers were made.
c. The rationale provided by the Auroville Foundation's office for these transfers and the reasons behind the Central Public Works Department's acceptance of these transfers.
d. The officially designated person within the Auroville Foundation's office who authorised these transfers.
e. The extent to which the transferred funds are intended to be returned to accounts managed by the Auroville Foundation or earmarked for future utilisation by the Auroville Foundation.”
It is noteworthy that the appellant was unsatisfied with the initial response from the PIO and subsequently lodged a first appeal on 28 March 2022.
The PIO, in a reply on 8 September 2023, stated that “Confidential information cannot be divulged to third parties. The comptroller and auditor general (CAG) is responsible for conducting annual audits of financial accounts each fiscal year.”
RTI applicant Mr Kumar argued during the second appeal that Auroville Foundation, being a public authority, is obligated to maintain and retain the necessary information as per the details sought in the current RTI application.
The PIO defended himself by arguing that the under-secretary, who served as the nodal officer, was under suspension from 14 April 2023, and subsequently retired on 31 July 2023. This situation resulted in RTI applications not being transferred by the nodal officer within the stipulated time frame. Additionally, he mentioned that they have received new login credentials for the RTI portal and are in the process of addressing and responding to all pending RTI applications.
CIC Mr Samariya, noting the failure of the CPIO to provide any response to the RTI application, has directed the former CPIO, through the present CPIO, to submit written justifications explaining why action should not be initiated against them under section 20 of the RTI Act for the serious violation of its provisions. In the event that other individuals are also found to be responsible for the omission, the CPIO should provide a copy of this order to such individuals, with notification to the commission, and ensure that written submissions from all concerned parties are sent to the commission.
(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".)