There Can’t Be a Blanket Denial of Information if the RTI Applicant Has a Locus Standi: CIC to NHAI
Slamming the central public information officer (CPIO) of the national highways authority of India (NHAI), for blanket denial of information pertaining to a project proposal and the shifting of electrical utilities for it, in Madurai, the central information commissioner (CIC) stated that since the applicant is its former project director, his locus standi should have been considered while denying all information. Only that which is under central bureau of investigation (CBI) should have been redacted and the rest should have been provided.
 
The order given last week by CIC Saroj Punhani of two of the applicants’ RTI applications put together, states: “…blanket denial of information by the CPIO in response to both the above mentioned RTI application without ascertaining the locus standi of the Appellant under Section 8(1)(h) of RTI Act was not appropriate.”
 
CIC hauled up the CPIO for violating the RTI Act and blindly applying the exemption clause, and pointed out that he should have forwarded the RTI application to the relevant PIO in case he did not possess the required documents sought by the RTI applicant. 
 
CIC Punhani observed that the conduct of the CPIO amounted to “unwarranted obstruction to the Appellant’s right to information and also is in grave violation of the provisions of RTI Act.” 
 
She also cautioned the CPIO “to exercise due diligence while responding to RTI applications in the future and should not blindly apply the exemption clause of Sections 8 and 9 of RTI Act.”
 
CIC Punhani rapped the CPIO because the reason he gave for not providing the information is that a case was filed by CBI, anti-corruption bureau (ACB) at Madurai with regard to shifting of electrical utilities along a few hundred kilometres along the stretch of the highway and hence “at this juncture, the undersigned (CPIO) is not in a position to disclose any information on the said above issue which was sought by you under RTI Act, 2005.”
 
The CIC order further states that, “rather, in the spirit of RTI Act, the CPIO at the first instance should have applied his mind and redacted that extract of the file (under investigation with the CBI) which attracts the relevant applicable exemption clause of Sections 8 and 9 of RTI Act and provided the remaining portion of the information by invoking Section 10 of RTI Act.
 
“Further, if it were the case that the CPIO did not have the relevant records with him and was aware of the concerned record holder, he was at liberty to invoke Section 5(4) of the RTI Act for seeking the assistance of the concerned record holder in order to render due assistance to the RTI Applicant as espoused in Section 5(3) of the Act. However, the then CPIO has failed to discharge their duty as per the Act in the instant cases,” it states.
 
CIC Punwani has now directed both the CPIOs “to revisit the contents of RTI applications and provide a revised point-wise separate reply along with the relevant available information as sought in RTI application(s) after redacting the names and identifying particulars of the committee members, other third parties, if any, which may figure in the noting, comments and report keeping in view the exemption clause of Section 8(1)(j) and 8(1)(g) of the RTI Act and can be severed in consonance with Section 10 of RTI Act.”
 
Ms Punwani also brought to the notice of the RTI applicant that some of the information that he sought “were clarifications/ inferences to be drawn by the CPIO based on his interrogatories. In this regard, the Appellant shall note that outstretching the interpretation of Section 2(f) of the RTI Act to include deductions and inferences to be drawn by the CPIO is unwarranted as it casts immense pressure on the CPIOs to ensure that they provide the correct  deduction/inference to avoid being subject to penal provisions under the RTI Act.”
 
The RTI applicant was SS Baskaran, former project director of NHAI, Tamil Nadu.
 
(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”.)
 
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