As a sequel to the Supreme Court order by chief justice DY Chandrachud, in the last week of August, directing Central and state information commissioners (ICs) to be proactively involved in the implementation of Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act; ICs from Maharashtra held a state-wide meeting with top Mantralaya officials, district collectors and the director general (DG) of Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration (YASHADA) to chalk out a strategy.
One of the main hurdles facing the ICs is that the RTI Act has the clause to penalise public information officers (PIOs) in case of denial of information but there is no clause to penalise heads of public authorities. For the implementation of the proactive disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act, it is the head of the public authority that is directly responsible.
For example, a municipal commissioner is the head of a municipal corporation. On him lies the sole responsibility to ensure the implementation of Section 4 but the ICs cannot penalise them. Hence, the implementation of the SC order has become a big challenge for the ICs as they have to be proactive in this cause without the power to pull up the heads of public authorities.
States Rahul Pandey, information commissioner of Nagpur, “We have taken the Supreme Court order very seriously and are working towards that end. In a meeting attended by the general administration (GAD) officials of the Mantralaya, DG of Yashada, and collectors of various districts, we sought their viewpoints.”
One of the crucial decisions was that during the monthly meetings held by collectors which discuss various issues, the implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act must mandatorily be discussed. IC Pandey informs that “We have suggested that public authorities of all government departments that come under RTI should time and again monitor if the website is regularly being uploaded with updated information.”
This, the ICs felt, would ensure better implementation of Section 4 information and it would drastically reduce the need for citizens to write an application under Section 6 for information, the time limit for which is 30 days for providing information.
Incidentally, former state chief information commissioners (SCICs) like Suresh Joshi and Ratnakar Gaikwad, had directed public authorities, through hard-hitting circulars, for proactive disclosures. The meeting has decided to take those letters as reference points for proactively ensuring that public authorities ensure that Section 4 is implemented in their respective departments.
The most hard-hitting circular to heads of public authorities was in 2012 when Ratnakar Gaikwad was the SCIC. The following guidelines for heads of government departments are formidable. SCIC Gaikwad had warned the public authorities that “any complaint of lapse in the implementation of provisions of RTI Act hereafter will be viewed seriously.”
ICs have decided to refer to this circular in the backdrop of the recent Supreme Court judgement:
All Public Authority,
Sub: Directions to Public Authorities u/s 19(8) r/w Section 15(4) of RTI Act
Whereas it is observed while deciding complaints filed u/s 18 of RTI Act as well as appeals filed under Section 19 of the Act that officers/Public Authorities functioning under your control are not paying enough attention to the implementation of RTI Act.
As a rule, officers from your organisation are not adhering to strict time limits prescribed for furnishing information to information seekers as well as First Appellate Authorities are not passing orders within 30 days as prescribed under the Act.
Some of the First Appellate Authorities are not at all even caring to pass reasoned orders as mandated in RTI Act. This shows lack of seriousness, awareness as well as ignorance on the part of PIOs and AAs. Close scrutiny of complaints and appeals has revealed that the immediate superiors of officers dealing with RTI requests and Appeals are not at all concerned about the implementation of RTI Act and never take any review to ensure effective implementation of RTI Act in true letter and spirit.
And whereas it is observed that there is a serious lapse in time-bound compliance provisions of Section 4 of the RTI Act despite repeated instructions and further is observed that this lapse has resulted in constantly growing complaints and appeals for non-disclosures on account of unorganised and nonretrievable records and inefficient information management.
Hence in exercise of the powers vested in this Commission under Section 19(8) read with Section 15(4) of the Act, you (means public authorities) are hereby directed by the Commission to ensure that:-
1. All records in your entire organisation be catalogued, indexed, and made accessible using an appropriate network with a view to disseminate maximum information required by citizens as envisaged in Section 4 (1)(a) of the Act without any loss of time.
2. The record-management practice, as much as possible, should be technologically driven. Technology should be used for efficient and wide dissemination of information.
3. All relevant information (17 points) already pro actively disclosed on the website of your organisation be reviewed, updated and should be made available for free access to citizens in printed form also as envisaged in Section 4(1)(b) of the Act. A board stating places where such updated disclosure is available for public access in printed form should also be displayed prominently.
4. Regular monthly review of receipt and disposal of applications and first appeals under RTI be taken at your level as well as by immediate controlling officers of PIOs and AAs so as to ensure that all applications and appeals filed are properly disposed off.
5. Compliance of instructions/directions issued by SIC to PIOs and AAs be monitored at a senior level. It should also be ensured that fine imposed is recovered from the salary of the concerned PIOs/AAs. A regular monitoring system should be devised for this and responsibility should be fixed on those failing to recover fines from the salaries of concerned PIOs/AAs.
6. Public Information Officers and wherever First Appellate Authorities are summoned should personally attend hearings of the Commission without fail and it should be impressed upon the concerned Officers that these hearings are quasijudicial in nature and they have to attend it with all seriousness.
7. Special arrangements for providing assistance to citizens in accessing information as envisaged in Section 4(1)(b)(xv), Section 5(3), and Section 6(4) be made at once.
8. It be noted that not only Public Information Officers and First Appellate Authorities but also all officers and employees and Heads of departments/Public Authorities under your control are equally responsible for effective implementation of provisions of RTI Act and all the concerned may be appropriately sensitised/ trained in this respect.
9. Plan of action to carry out above directions be reported to the Commission forthwith. As we are in 7th year of implementation of RTI Act, any complaint of lapse in the implementation of provisions of RTI Act hereafter will be viewed seriously.
Chief Information Commissioner
(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".)