Section 19 of RTI Act 2005 says that any person who does not receive a decision within the time specified in subsection (1) of clause (a) of sub-section (3) of section 7, or is aggrieved by a decision of the Public Information Officer (PIO) of state or central Government as the case may be, may within thirty (30) days from the expiry of such period or from the receipt of such a decision prefer an appeal to such officer who is senior in rank to the Public Information Officer (PIO) as the case may be, in each public authority.
This legal provision makes it clear that the First Appellate Authority (FAA) has to be a senior officer to the Public Information Officer (PIO). Majority of the public authorities follow the same norm. In the offices of Deputy Commissioner, the Assistant Commissioner Revenue (ACR) have been designated as PIO and the Additional Deputy Commissioners (ADCs) are the designated First Appellate Authorities. Similarly the Block Development Officers (BDOs) are the designated PIOs in J&K Rural Development Department (RDD) and Assistant Commissioner Development (ACD) is the 1st appellate authority in every district. On contrary to this the Higher Education Department without even using a common sense or following the provisions of RTI Act 2005 has designated all the Government College Principals in J&K as PIOs. The Additional Secretary to Government who is much junior in rank to College Principals has been designated as the First Appellate Authority (FAA) of these PIO's in clear violation of RTI Act.
Background of the case
I was not aware of the fact that Govt degree college principals have been designated as Public Information Officers (PIOs) in their respective institutions under RTI law. Recently when some aggrieved persons came to me in connection with some RTI related issue I got to know that degree college principals have been designated as PIOs. I assumed that Director Colleges J&K Govt would be their First Appellate Authority (FAA) but I was surprised to see from the official website of Higher Education Department, www.jkhighereducation.nic.in, that Additional Secretary to Government of J&K namely Sanjeev Rana has been designated as the First Appellate Authority (FAA) for all the college principals. Now imagine how much workload this officer would be having? He has to adjudicate all the RTI appeals from almost 140 plus Govt degree colleges of J&K? This is like a cruel joke. In addition to being FAA for 145 college principals the Additional Secretary is appellate authority for his own office PIO who happens to be the Under Secretary in the department.
Ironically Director Colleges Prof Perzada Yousuf who is much senior in rank and status to Additional Secretary has also been designated as PIO? Government has made the entire process of seeking information under RTI so much complicated in Higher Education Department that if an information is sought from Govt Degree College in Kishtwar and the same is denied or incomplete information is provided by the principal (designated PIO), the aggrieved will have to file first appeal in civil secretariat in Srinagar or Jammu? This not only sounds absurd and ludicrous, but goes against the section 19 of RTI Act 2005 which I have already explained.
A college principal is almost equivalent to Secretary to Government or Special Secretary if the principal is not a confirmed professor. College Principals grade pay is Rs 10,000 who draws a gross salary of Rs 2.75 lakhs per month (approximately) while the grade pay of Additional Secretary in J&K Govt is Rs 7800 drawing monthly salary of around Rs 1.30 to 1.40 lakhs. Same is the case with Director Colleges, whose grade is much higher than Additional Secretary and Special Secretary to Govt, but very unfortunately the officer has also been designated as PIO, while as Additional Secretary is his First Appellate Authority (FAA) ?
A Govt Degree College is itself a public authority and the college head (Principal) can designate some Assistant Professor as a Public Information Officer (PIO). A section officer (SO) or head assistant in the college can be designated as Assistant Public Information Officer (APIO) who can assist the PIO. The principal can be the First Appellate Authority (FAA) which will in fact help the RTI applicants. There is a clear provision about the same in RTI Act 2005, but unfortunately the officers at helm in higher education department civil secretariat seem to have not even gone through the RTI law before designating the PIOs and FAAs several years back. The mistake committed by previous officers continues to be followed even now.
The office of the Director Colleges can also designate its own PIO who can be any gazetted officer. The Director can be the First Appellate Authority (FAA). If this is followed it will not only reduce the workload on the Civil Secretariat Higher Education Department PIO (Under Secretary) and Additional Secretary (FAA) but will also decentralize the entire process of RTI in Jammu & Kashmir.
Obsolete info on website
One more error the higher education department has committed is that it continues to portray the details of repealed J&K RTI Act 2009 and its rules 2012 on its official website. This law has been repealed soon after article 370 was abrogated and by not uploading RTI Act 2005 on its website shows the callousness of the IT cell of this department. I believe senior officials too have not gone through their own official website for many years otherwise they would have rectified this serious error. This is not the case with only higher education departments, but many other administrative departments, directorates, DC offices etc., also hardly update their official websites. In spite of the matter being viewed seriously by Government that issued a circular Circular No: 05 –JK (GAD) of 2021 Dated 29.01/2021 directing all Administrative Secretaries, HoDs, Deputy Commissioners to update their official websites and submit an action taken report by Feb 18th 2021, it seems the GAD circular has no takers. It is important to mention here that I had earlier brought the issue related to Govt websites into notice of Lt Governor Manoj Sinha when I along with a delegation of J&K RTI Movement activists had met him in Srinagar on January 18th this year.
For more than 15 years, the Right to Information Act (RTI) is applicable in J&K. We got this law first time in 2004, then J&K came up with a better version of law in 2009 (JK RTI Act 2009). In addition to it central RTI Act was promulgated in 2005, which has been extended to J&K post article 370 abrogation. If our Govt officers are still not able to understand the difference between a Public Information Officer (PIO) and First Appellate Authority (FAA) , I have no words to mention this kind of incompetence. The founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange says that secrecy breeds incompetence because where there is failure, the failure is kept secret. Let us accept the failures and try to rectify the same without keeping it a secret….Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Founder/ Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement