Citizens must be empowered to obtain information from the government for the promotion of transparency and accountability. The Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act), a revolutionary legislation that allows every Indian citizen to access information from public authorities, was enacted with this aim.
The RTI Act mandates timely response to a request for information by a citizen. Section 6 allows a citizen “to obtain any information under this Act” by requesting in writing or through electronic means accompanied by such fees as may be prescribed.
Subsection 3 of Section 6 has the noble intention of saving the applicant’s effort and time if the information sought from a public authority is with another department. In such a case, the Central/state public information officer (CPIO/PIO) must transfer the application to the authority possessing the required information within five days of receiving it and inform the applicant accordingly.
However, this ‘loophole’ in the Act is being increasingly used by government departments to deny information to RTI applicants by passing the buck. Even if the PIO possesses the information, the application is forwarded to other public authorities mostly subordinate to the officer.
PIOs not ‘posts offices
In Rakesh Kumar Gupta vs Central Information Commission, 2021, the Delhi High Court (HC) said that PIOs cannot “function merely as post offices”, but have to provide the information sought from them.
The court observed that Central/state PIOs cannot withhold information without a reasonable cause and evade disclosure of information.
“Every effort should be made to locate information, and the fear of disciplinary action would work as a deterrent against the suppression of information for vested interests,” the HC said while stressing the PIOs “cannot function merely as post offices”, but ensure information is provided to the applicant.
The PIO has to “apply his/her mind, analyse the material” and then direct disclosure or give reasons for non-disclosure of information, the court added.
Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) is a rural infrastructure scheme of the ministry of rural development (MoRD). The tendering process, allotment of work, detailed project reports (DPRs) and other information related to the scheme are available in digital format.
Information about any road constructed under PMGSY in any state is available with the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) or its allied agencies, like National Rural Infrastructure Development Agency (NRIDA) or the respective chief engineers in states or Union Territories (Uts). However, when Mushtaq Ahmad Lone of Batwodder hamlet, in Budgam district of J&K, sought a copy of the DPR of a 9-km PMGSY road project in June this year, he was in for a shock. The road—which connects the Bonyar and Gogji Pathri villages via Kutabal and passes through Bonen Batwodder—was damaged within six months of construction in 2019-20. Lone and many locals allege that the work was not done according to the specifications of the DPR.
Lone sought a copy of the DPR directly from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) after the Budgam office of PMGSY didn’t provide the information to several other locals. Ironically, the information sought was unavailable on any website of the J&K administration.
Lone filed his application through www.rtionline.gov.in, which only provides information about Central government offices. Despite being a UT, J&K administration offices lack the facility of receiving RTI applications electronically.
Misusing section 6 (3)
Within 24 hours of filing his RTI application through an online portal, Mushtaq started experiencing the rigmarole of Section 6(3). First, his application was transferred to the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), which further forwarded it to National Rural Infrastructure Development Authority (NRIDA) within a week. On June 30, NRIDA’s New Delhi office directed the Chief Engineer of PMGSY in Kashmir to provide the information, who passed the buck to the Executive Engineer of PMGSYs Budgam office the next day. More than 2 months after the communication between the chief engineer’s office and the executive engineer, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone has not been provided with the details of the project. The Executive Engineer even got Mushatq’s PHH ration card verified from the Food and Civil Supplies Department, but still the information (DPR of road) has not been provided to him. This is how our governance works? I am unable to understand why the Chief Engineer PMGSY Kashmir didn’t provide the copy of DPR directly to Mushtaq as he has all this information in his office. What was the need to pass on the buck to Executive Engineer Budgam ? The Chief Engineer needs to respond.
On July 6, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, who is not entitled to pay RTI application fee being a Priority Household (PHH) category ration card holder, was asked by the executive engineer to pay the sum accompanying his application. Lone also refused to meet him at his office for negotiation. Subsequently, the engineer cross-checked Lone’s ration card category with the department of food, civil supplies and consumer affairs.
Forwarding RTI applications
In its 2014 judgement in Ministry of Railways through Secretary and others vs Girish Mittal, the Delhi HC observed that Section 6(3) doesn’t mean that a Central PIO’s responsibility is only limited to forwarding applications to departments/offices.
“Forwarding an application by a public authority to another public authority is not the same as a public information officer of a public authority arranging or sourcing information from within its own organisation,” the court observed.
The case relates to an RTI application filed by one Girish Mittal, who had sought information on the Garib Rath trains in all the zones from the ministry of Railways but didn’t get a reply within the stipulated 30 days. The Railways CPIO had forwarded his application to the Research Designs and Standards Organisation. Subsequently, he filed a complaint with the Central Information Commission (CIC), which directed the CPIO to furnish the information and imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on him. The CPIO challenged the CIC order in the court.
Emphasising that he cannot escape his responsibility by merely forwarding the application to other officials under Section 6 (3), Justice Vibhu Bakhru dismissed the CPIO’s petition. Maintaining that the information would be available with the Railway Board, the court directed the CPIO to furnish the information sought by Mittal.
Duties of PIOs
The writer has faced similar challenges while seeking information in, at least, two dozen applications. The PIOs, who possessed the information, forwarded his applications to subordinate offices. Some farmers whose land was acquired were even denied copies of notifications issued under Sections 6, 7, 9, 9-A and 17 of the repealed Jammu and Kashmir Land Acquisition Act, 1934. The writer had to draft an RTI application for the farmers to get the information.
Section 5(3) and (4) make it mandatory for a PIO to deal with requests of citizens seeking information and render reasonable assistance to them while taking the assistance of any other officer, if considered necessary by him or her, for the proper discharge of duties. The designated Public Information Officers (PIOs) have to render “all reasonable assistance” where requests for information cannot be made in writing to the applicant making the request orally to reduce the same in writing, but instead of that the PIOs make the information seekers suffer and pass on the buck by misusing section 6 (3) of RTI Act 2005.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is founder and chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement