Praveen Mehan, president of Right to Information Jagriti Sansthan, Hanumangarh rued that departments are reluctant to provide information and appeals are not being heard (Picture courtesy of Amarpal Singh Verma)
Over the past decade, the State Information Commission has slapped fines amounting to Rs 4.5 crores on government officers who refused to provide the information sought by RTIs. But despite High Cout directives, it has failed to recover more than half this amount.
Jaipur: The Union government brought the Right to Information Act into force across the country on October 12, 2005, but Rajasthan's government had implemented it much earlier in 2000. But these bragging rights are being squandered by the realities in Rajasthan where Public Information Officers (PIOs) often deny RTI applicants the information they seek. They even refuse to pay the penalties imposed on them by the State Information Commission (SIC), said several RTI activists in Rajasthan.
Razak A Haider, an RTI activist who has filed nearly 400 applications so far, told 101Reporters, "The Act says that any information available to an MP in the Parliament or an MLA in the State Assembly cannot be denied to a common man. PIOs make several excuses to not provide the information sought through RTIs. They reject many applications on the pretext that either the applicant has no right to the information or it does not come under the ambit of their department. In many cases where the applicant gets a reply, the information is not complete.”
Haider also said that many PIOs were yet to pay the fines imposed on them by the SIC for non-compliance as well as the compensations that were to be paid to aggrieved RTI applicants.
High Court order ignored
The gaps in the implementation of RTI in the state came to light when Tarun Agarwal, an Ajmer-based advocate and RTI activist, sought information on the fines imposed on errant PIOs and the compensation paid to aggrieved applicants. According to the SIC, the total fines and compensation imposed between the financial years 2009–10 and 2019–20 amounted to Rs 4.5 crores. But out of this, Rs 2.5 crores were yet to be paid. Aggarwal filed a writ petition in the Rajasthan High Court seeking recovery of the pending fines from the PIOs.
In response to Aggarwal’s plea, the High Court issued a directive on December 7, 2020 and following this, Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) DB Gupta wrote to Chief Secretary Niranjan Arya on January 11, 2021, requesting him to recover Rs 2,32,38,341 from 1848 PIOs in 43 departments and deposit the amount in the treasury.
Aggarwal said that over ten months had passed after the HC order, but the Commission was yet to recover the fines.
Meanwhile, at a review meeting held in Jaipur on September 22, Ashwini Bhagat, the principal secretary of the Administrative Reforms and Coordination Department, informed Arya that all 43 departments concerned had been directed to immediately deduct the pending penalties from the salaries of the errant PIOs.
Advocate Radheshyam Goel of Sri Ganganagar said, “On my appeal, the SIC had imposed penalties ranging between Rs 5,000 and Rs 25,000 on PIOs of Sriganganagar Municipal Council, Municipal Development Trust, District Administration and Electricity Corporation for negligence, indifference and/or inaction. Even though SIC had ordered to recover the amounts from the salaries of the PIOs, no action has been taken.”
Lack of accountability
It is the responsibility of the PIOs to provide the information sought by an RTI applicant within 30 days (48 hours, in case of threat to life and liberty). If there is no response, applicants can appeal to the First Appellate Officer (FAO). However, it is alleged that many FAOs too were ignoring these pleas, leading to around 16,000 appeals piling up in their offices. It is at this stage that applicants approach the SIC directly.
Former Information Commissioner Ashutosh Sharma said, “There is no provision in the RTI Act to take action against the FAO. Each time this was brought to the notice of the government, instead of taking corrective action, it would issue an order to dispose of the pending appeals.”
Information Commissioner Narayan Bareth, however, said most of the appeals that came to the commission were disposed of promptly and errant officers were being fined. He blamed PIOs for the sad state of affairs. “Often when an application is filed, the PIO concerned does not act on it. This forces the applicant to approach the FAO. Even if the FAO asks the PIO to provide the information, the latter would not comply. This is what leads the SIC to impose fines on these officers,” he said, adding that Rs 4.5-crore penalties ordered was proof that the entire SIC was not lackadaisical.
"RTI is a progressive law. A progressive law is one that has been evolving. Every law has its jurisprudence. The RTI Law is yet to attain it. After five or ten years, all these problems will end," Bareth said.
Most negligent departments
The departments which are facing the most criticism of non-compliance to the RTI Act include Panchayati Raj (580 cases of fines imposed in the last ten years), Local Self Government (286), Jaipur Municipal Corporation (256), Jaipur Development Authority (132), Revenue (129), Education (90), Food and Civil Supplies (41), Health (39), Social Justice and Empowerment Department (18).
Haider alleged that the reins of the government were in the hands of bureaucrats who want to end the system of penalties for non-compliance. He said it was the commission’s failure in recovering penalties from the PIOs’ salaries that encouraged them to ignore their responsibilities. “The Commission has the authority to impose fines of Rs 250 per day and a maximum of Rs 25,000 on PIOs for dereliction of duties. The Act has been weakened to the extent that RTI applicants are being forced to wait for two years to receive the information they seek. Even the boards about the RTI Act outside government offices have been removed,” he said.
Haider says, “In the RTI Act, there is a provision that if a person is not able to apply for information in writing or has visual or hearing disabilities, then an officer must help the person in filing the application. If a citizen sends his application to the wrong department, it is the responsibility of the receiving PIO to send it to the right place. However, the reality is that officers often chide the applicant for making such errors.”
Delay can’t be justified
About the delay in response to RTI applications, Bareth said, "In some cases it is true. If it takes such a long time to get the information, then what is the point of it? Around 16,000 appeals are pending with the Commission. The CIC and four commissioners including me are hearing expeditiously. However, the more appeals we dispose of, the more new appeals are filed. Nevertheless, we continue our efforts. We wanted to conduct camps in Banswara and Udaipur to dispose of the pending cases, but could not do so because of the lockdown. Recently, we conducted a camp at the Jaipur Development Authority office and settled all appeals that were pending there. Similar camps will be organised at all departments where large numbers of appeals are pending.
Hence, the question is what should be done so that people get information on time. In response, Sharma said, "Under Section 4 (1) (b) of the RTI Act 2005, the government should put all information online on its own motion. If more and more information is made public, people will not have to file RTI applications. The PIOs must change their approach. Why should they hesitate in providing information? Only those who have erred need to fear."
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