Can’t always blame PIOs; they aren’t trained by the government
Few days back I got a call from a senior citizen from Saidawari village of Veerinag, South Kashmir.
He told me that an officer from Power Development Department (PDD) has told him to deposit around Rs 2000 as photocopying charges under J&K RTI Act 2009. The RTI applicant told me that he was asked to deposit photocopying fees @ Rs 10 per copy.
I was not at all shocked to learn this because I have come across dozens of such cases wherein public authorities demand hefty charges against providing the information under RTI Act.
In another case a caller from Tangmarg in North Kashmir told me that the PIO of a particular department is charging Rs 3500 without making any calculations. He was not told for how many pages he had to pay Rs 3500 , the only thing he was informed in writing was to pay photocopying fees @ Rs 10 / copy ?
I have mentioned it several times in my previous columns that RTI application fees has been slashed from Rs 50 to Rs 10 and the photocopying fees has been reduced from Rs 10 to Rs 2 per copy almost three years back when the J&K RTI Rules 2010 were repealed by J&K Government on August 30th 2012 under SRO 279. We have been severely criticizing the Government’s move of repealing J&K RTI Rules 2010 three years back, but for the information of RTI users, applicants and our esteemed readers, the reduction of application and photocopying fees is the only positive thing that exists in the present RTI Rules – J&K RTI Rules 2012. The exorbitant fee is usually charged in far flung areas where people are ignorant about RTI and this is done to demoralize the RTI users / information seekers. I have come across many such incidents in Kishtwar, Doda, Kupwara and other places.
I won’t blame PIOs for charging exorbitant fees under RTI Act deliberately as majority of them have not been trained by J&K Government. Even if some PIOs who got some basic training, majority of them are not designated PIOs as on date, as most of them got promoted or have retired from Government service. For example if some KAS officer was posted as Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) in some district he usually used to be the designated PIO as well in the office of Deputy Commissioner. After a year or so this officer gets transferred or promoted and is posted as Director or Special Secretary to Government, he is no more a PIO. The new ADC posted at the place hasn’t undergone any RTI training so he keeps committing mistakes. Most of the PIOs who are not trained consult their subordinate staff while disposing off an RTI plea. And when they commit a mistake by charging exorbitant fees from RTI applicant, or don’t provide information within stipulated time, they have to face the wrath of the State Information Commission (SIC). That way it impacts the career of a PIO negatively.
Under Section 23 of State RTI Act the Government of Jammu & Kashmir is under legal obligation to train the general public about the provisions Right to Information Act (RTI). In addition to it the Government has to train its officers also, especially the designated PIOs. The Central Government’s Department of Personnel and Trainings (DoPT) has large amount of funds available for RTI trainings and programmes. If J&K Government sends them a good proposal, I am sure providing funds for training PIOs in JK won’t be an issue for DoPT. Even after more than 6 years of enactment of RTI Act in J&K, Government has not published training material on RTI for its PIO’s. I would appeal Government officers who are designated First Appellate Authorities (FAA) , Public Information Officers (PIO’s) or Assistant PIO’s (APIO’s), to put pressure on Government for getting basic training in this regard.