In blatant disregard to the basic tenets of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Telangana chief secretary had ordered all public information officers (PIOs) in the state government to obtain an order from higher authorities before furnishing information to applicants under the Act. This, however, was quickly scuttled last week with the High Court issuing a stay order.
To recall, a few weeks ago, Telangana chief secretary Somesh Kumar issued an order stating, “It has come to notice of the undersigned that the state PIOs designated or appointed under RTI Act in certain administrative units or offices are furnishing information to the applicants in a routine manner without proper verification of the records with reference to the information sought for by the application.”
“Therefore, all the special chief secretaries, principal secretaries and secretaries to the government are requested to instruct the PIOs designated or appointed in their office to obtain orders of special chief secretaries, principal secretaries or secretaries to the ‘government or head of the department, before furnishing the information to the applicant under RTI Act.”
This outraged the entire RTI fraternity leading to activist Ganji Srinivas Rao filing public interest litigation (PIL) in the Telangana High Court, based on this order being unconstitutional. He also argued that the department of personnel and training (DoPT) in the Union government is the nodal agency which is in charge of implementing the RTI Act and not any other government authority.
While the case has been adjourned for inputs from the Telangana state government on the petition, it may be noted that the DoPT website has provided clear instructions to the chief secretaries of all the states besides public authorities. It states, “the public authorities are the repository of information which the citizens have a right to have under the Right to Information Act, 2005. The Act casts important obligations on them so as to facilitate the reach of people to information held by them. This department has prepared a ‘guide’ for the public authorities, which would help them in the discharge of their functions under the Act effectively.”
“The Act casts important obligations on public authorities so as to facilitate the citizens of the country to access the information held under their control.
“The obligations of a public authority are basically the obligations of the head of the authority, who should ensure that these are met in right earnest…Every public authority should provide as much information suo motu to the public through various means of communications so that the public have minimum resort to the use of the Act to obtain information,” the DoPT says.
Two former central information commissioners (CICs), Shailesh Gandhi and Prof Sridhar Acharyulu, have dashed off a letter to Somesh Kumar, the chief secretary, as he had mentioned in his order that he had to take this recourse because many PIOs in Telangana are “furnishing information to the applicants in a routine manner without proper verification of records.”
Suppose this is the reason, state both, Mr Gandhi and Prof Acharyulu, the state government could have corrected the situation by performing the following duties prescribed as per the RTI Act 2005.
• Designate responsible officers as PIOs instead of making clerks, superintendents or juniors or inexperienced employees.
• Give the PIOs required training to discharge their duties properly. This is the mandate of the Parliament through the RTI Act. Please see Section 26 of the Act, which lists out the responsibilities of the government, including the training to be given to PIOs..The government has a responsibility to educate people, encourage public authorities to undertake RTI awareness programs, train PIOs and produce training modules, providing for the voluntary disclosure of categories of records in accordance with section 4.
• Notably, the government should have checked whether the records are kept in order so that PIOs could verify them ‘properly’. Again, this is the mandate imposed by the Parliament through Section 4 (1)(a) of the Act.
Both the CICs have brought to the notice of the Telangana chief secretary that his circular has caused serious concern and apprehensions among the RTI applicants and activists, whether any information sought would come out within 30 days.
They have also observed that, in the past 16 years, the first appellate authority (FAA), though a senior and primarily a gazetted officer, will not alter the order of PIO, as he endorses whatever the PIO writes. That is because the entire office or at least the officer designated as FAA might have instructed the PIO to refuse to share information.
Recommendations by Shailesh Gandhi and Prof Sridhar Acharyulu: PIOs disempowered
Suppose the government insists on the implementation of this circular. In that case, it will tie up the hands of PIOs and run against the letter and spirit of RTI Act, 2005 which resulted from a significant civil society struggle for decades.
• The government has to see that each public authority makes suo motu disclosures as mandated by Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act, which would have reduced the RTI requests substantially.
• Senior, experienced, and responsible officers should be designated as PIOs to take independent decisions according to law.
• There should be sufficient training of the PIOs and appellate authorities in the state to enable them to furnish information according to RTI Act.
• The records should be appropriately categorised and listed for easy disclosure.
• The entire file and reasons for issuance of this circular should be brought into the public domain as mandated by Section 4(1)(c).
• The government cannot deny the information except under Sections 8 and 9 of the Act. But the circular imposed another restriction that no information could be given without permission of the principal secretary. It is illegal.
Making a case for the total withdrawal of the circular, Mr Gandhi and Prof Acharyulu state, “If the lawmakers had the same comprehension as the circular expressed, the Act would not have created a post called PIO at all. It would have made the heads, special or principal or chief secretaries as concerned officers directly responsible for receiving RTI applications like present PIOs and be liable if not acted as per Act.’’
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife and 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”.)