We live in an age of information and most of the information is available in a digital format nowadays. If in this digital age someone asks you to pay huge amount of money for making photocopies, isn’t it really absurd and ludicrous? The Public Works (R&B) department officers with an aim to demoralise few RTI applicants recently asked them to pay 1 lakh as photostat charges. The applicants had jointly filed an application to get information under the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI). The Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE) R&B Sub Division Sumbal, District Bandipora through an official communication with his senior colleague (Executive Engineer R&B Division Bandipora) on 16th August 2023 demanded Rs 1 lakh fees. The letter reads:
“With reference to the above captioned subject and reference number, it is to submit that this office has received an RTI application from Shri Shabir Ahmad Parray, Shri Tariq Ahmad Parray and others wherein they have requested the following information: Certified attested copies of funds utilized for construction purpose in Hajin from 2018 till date including the name of building, road and allied works executed by R&B. Certified copies of NOCs issued for building permission from 2018 till date. Before framing the information the applicant may be asked to deposit an amount of Rs 1.00 lakhs approximately for preparing the information”
Information Sought ?
The RTI applicants had sought the information regarding the utilization of funds for construction purposes in Hajin area of Bandipora district which comes under construction division Sumbal. The applicants had also sought the certified attested copies of NOCs issued for the building permission purposes from 2018 to 2023. As a campaigner of RTI I think this information should be available with the AEE in a digital format and he should not have demanded such a huge fees from applicants. This is a clear case to demoralize the information seekers who are mostly not familiar with the RTI law and rules. I believe this has been done intentionally with an aim that information seekers will not be able to access the information as they won’t pay such a huge fee. I got to know about this case on the very next day when this letter was issued. Some local activist sent me the official letter on WhatsApp and I was shocked. I posted the same on social media and many newspapers and digital media covered this news. The poor official isn’t aware of the fact that information he has been asked to provide has to be made proactively available on the official website of R&B PWD or DC office Bandipora as per the provisions of section 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005. Infact under e office and digital India programme also Govt offices have to keep all the information available in digital mode for the public. It seems AEE R&B Division Sumbal isn’t also aware of the fact that he is a designated PIO under RTI Act 2005 or Assistant PIO-APIO and he has to specify how many pages of information he is going to provide to the applicant ? If he is charging Rs 1 lakh that means his office has to make 50,000 photocopies as for each page Rs 2 are charged as per RTI Rules. But the officer has given a vague reply by demanding Rs 1 lakh fees .
Executive Engineer R&B Bandipora
In March this year the Executive Engineer PWD R&B Division Bandipora asked an RTI applicant from below poverty line (BPL) category to pay more than Rs 4000 as xerox fees to get information under RTI Act 2005.
The letter signed by Executive Engineer R&B division Bandipora addressed to RTI applicant Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat who hails from Ajas Bandipora read as :
“Regarding the subject cited above , the requisite information as desired by you through RTI Act has been kept ready by this office and accordingly you are hereby informed to deposit the necessary photostat charges of the requisite documents Rs 4375.”
On receiving the letter the RTI applicant Parvaiz Ahmad got agitated as he had been asked to deposit huge charges to the Executive Engineer. The information seeker was not only agitated over the officer for demanding exorbitant fees but being an BPL RTI applicant , he was supposed to get the information free of cost as per the provisions of RTI Act 2005.
This is not the case with Parvaiz only but in Bonen Surasyar, district Budgam, the PMGSY engineers a few years back got a BPL ration card of an RTI applicant Mushtaq Ahmad cross checked through Assistant Director Food & Civil Supplies Budgam. I wish the Govt officers would have instead used such energy in digitizing their record and bringing more transparency in the Govt offices.
Why make 50,000 xerox copies?
At a time when a lot of information is made public by the Govt at national level and in J&K as well, why don’t people have access to information especially related to developmental projects with huge fundings? Nobody would appreciate making 50,000 photocopies on a Xerox machine in this digital era? The Assistant Executive Engineer PWD (R&B) Sub Division Sumbal District Bandipora could have given the information to RTI applicants in a PDF format as this is very much available in his office computers. The said information could have been send to them via email also or given in a pen drive provided it was really huge? But it seems the intentions of the officer are not honest and clean. The information sought won’t consist of more than 500 pages as the applicants only wanted information of the last 5 years ( 2018-2023). He also has a right to inspect the documents as mandated under section 2 (i) of RTI Act 2005. More so the Public Information Officer (PIO) cannot charge any fees after the stipulated time of 30 days is over. Section 7 (6) of RTI Act 2005 reads:
“Notwithstanding anything contained in sub‑section (5), the person making request for the information shall be provided the information free of charge where a public authority fails to comply with the time limits specified in sub‑section (1) (30 days) ”
In the aforementioned case the Assistant Executive Engineer -AEE or the deemed PIO asked the applicant to pay Rs 1 lakh fees after a lapse of 2 months. The RTI applicant had filed application on June 16th 2023 and he was not provided information within 30 days. The AEE has committed a legal blunder by asking applicant to deposit the fees after 60 days time. This makes it clear that designated officers under RTI Act 2005 (PIOs, APIOs or Appellate Authorities) are ignorant about the RTI Act 2005 and its rules.
Local media has highlighted this issue for last several days but it is unfortunate that authorities at the helm like Deputy Commissioner Bandipora or Chief Engineer PWD-R&B Kashmir haven’t even initiated an inquiry into this case. Govt needs to view this seriously as it goes against the policies of Govt of India vis a vis Digital India or e-office initiative taken by JK Govt. Let the information on all public works be made available on different Govt websites and portals as this is mandatory not only under the RTI law but under various other Govt programmes as well. JK Govt must train its designated PIOs and ensure they provide information to the RTI applicants within stipulated time and in a digital format.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement