Maharashtra Govt's Public Authorities Wasting Time, Money and Energy by Calling Applicants Physically for RTI Hearings
Consider this case of early this week. At the regional commissioner of fisheries office located in Mumbai, the assistant commissioner, who doubles as the first appellate authority (FAA), conducted the first appeal hearing by directing the right to information (RTI) applicant to come from Pune and the public information officer (PIO) to come all the way from Alibaug. All in an era when the Supreme Court, as recently as in 2021, has directed all public authorities and information commissions to conduct hybrid hearings and the option to be served to the applicant.
 
Besides, at a collective online meeting held by state and central information commissioners as well as the officers of the department of personnel and training (DoPT) as recently as November 2023, online hearing for second appeals/ complaints has been made mandatory.
 
Curiously, at the FAA hearing, the PIO of the fisheries department, Raigad-Alibaug, paradoxically defended himself stating that he could not provide information due to stress and overload of work. Commuting from one place to another is time-consuming compared to online hearings that get over with 15 minutes to half an hour, on an average. And the time saved could have been used to provide the information.
 
The letter of AM Deshpande, assistant commissioner, fisheries department, asking the RTI applicant Vijay Kumbhar and the PIO to come from Pune and Alibaug, is curious. Particularly because all public authorities have been directed to hold online hearings for which they have received some amount of funding from the Central government.
 
When Moneylife contacted Rahul Pandey, state information commissioner of Nagpur and Amravati division, he informed that while all district courts have been allocated Rs34 crore for upgrading to facilitate online hearings, the state information commission (SIC) of Maharashtra has only received Rs50 lakh for its eight benches put together. Even within this small funding, all the eight benches have upgraded hearing to online/ hybrid, he stated. Hence, he is surprised that physical hearings are still going on in public authorities. 
 
Mr Kumbhar had filed an RTI application under Section 6 of the RTI Act, seeking information on some farmland under the fisheries department in Konkan region. States Mr Kumbhar, “It is shocking to note that 95% of FAA hearings in Maharashtra are conducted physically as a result of which applicants have to travel from different parts of Maharashtra. It is complete contempt of court. I would have saved a few thousand rupees and my entire day if the fisheries department had conducted the online first appeal hearing. The PIO would have used his time fruitfully to reply to RTI queries.”
 
Will any action be taken against such public authorities who are defying the SC order?
 
 What the Supreme Court said in its order:
  • The Supreme Court has ordered all SICs to build up a hybrid system to hear complaints and appeals under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act).
  • All SICs must provide the option for hybrid hearings and make electronic filing efficient and accessible for all litigants.
  • All state and Central ministries shall take steps within a period of one month to compile the email addresses of the Central and state PIOs which shall be furnished to all the SICs and the central information commissioner (CIC). For implementation of this order, the DoPT shall convene a meeting of all SICs and CICs to prepare a timeline to adhere to the above directive. 
 
(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".)
Comments
glnprasad52
2 weeks ago
The option must be of the appellant, as Audio or Video hearing may not serve all purposes. An IC heard 23 appeals in 3mts over phone and finally ordered that the appellant has to provide succession certificates of X, Y &Z , for providing public records. They quote Delhi HC Judgment and say that they can not review their own decision even if it is a blunder. Such video hearing may be possible in simple cases of deemed denial or information denied stating any clauses under 8 (1).
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