The court orders that in the backdrop of too much and vague information asked for by the citizen, providing copies of 3,419 pages in 30 days is an ‘impossible’ task for the Public Information Officer
In 2010, when I asked for the contract agreement between Ideal Road Builders (IRB) and Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) for the operation and maintenance of the Pune-Mumbai Expressway, which ran into 800 odd pages, I was provided the copy within two days.
Recently, in a Leave Patent Appeal (LPA) filed before a division bench of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court by the State Information Commissioner, First Appellate Authority and Public Information Officer (PIO), the judge ordered that 3,419 pages of information was ‘impossible’ for the Public Information Officer to provide within the statutory 30 days. The order states that the information sought by the RTI applicant was vague, making it difficult for the PIO to collect the information and furnish it within the stipulated time. It also questioned the motive of the RTI applicant in seeking information, deeming his intentions as “malafide intentions”.
Let’s see what the RTI applicant asked for in his application
Tushar Mandlekar, a Nagpur resident, asked for documents relating to illegal registrations of imported vehicles and taxes evaded by their owners. He addressed his application to Transport Commissioner’s office, Mumbai. However, he asked much more information which is as follows:
(1) It is reported in the Lokmat newspaper that a large number of imported vehicles were registered illegally and the taxes were evaded. Kindly give the copy of the letters written by the transport secretary to the transport commissioner and vice versa. (Kindly give the copies of the entire communication between the office of transport secretary and the office of transport commissioner).
(2) Kindly give the copies of all the complaints/directions received by your office from ministers, NGOs, MLA, MLC, individuals or any other person in this regard.
(3) Kindly also give the preliminary report sent by the transport commissioner in this regard to the government.
(4) Kindly give the copies of all the letters/communication made by the DRI officials with your office.
(5) Kindly give the copies of the show-cause notices sent if any to the Motor Vehicle Inspectors/officers.
(6) Kindly give the copies of the reply of motor vehicle officers received if any by your department in this regard.
(7) Is it true that your office has initiated the steps to give the enquiry to the CBI? If yes then kindly give the copies of all such letters, files and records of decisions made by the transport department.
(8) Kindly also give the amount of estimated loss of customs, octroi, excise duty, road tax caused to the state exchequer because of the illegal registration of the imported vehicles.
(9) Kindly give the procedure and rules in registration of imported vehicles along with the list if requisite documents.
(10) Kindly give the copies of the complaints made by your department to the police in this regard.
(11) Kindly give the list of the vehicles along with the vehicle numbers which were found to have evaded the necessary taxes.
What happened next?
Mr Mandlekar did not receive his information within the stipulated 30 days. So, he filed an appeal with the First Appellate Authority (FAA) stating that under the rules of Section 19 (1) he should get information free of cost and the PIO should be penalised.
Meanwhile, a day later than the stipulated 30 days, the PIO sent a reply to Mr Mandlekar’s RTI application stating that he needs to pay Rs3,310 as charges for copies of information that ran into 3,419 pages. He received this reply a few days after the stipulated 30 days. The FAA ordered the PIO to provide the information free of cost. However, the PIO did not oblige.
So, Mr Mandlekar filed the second appeal with the State Information Commissioner (SIC) who rejected his appeal. Mr Mandlekar then filed a writ petition against the order of the SIC. The single judge of the Nagpur division of the Bombay High Court ordered the PIO to provide Mr Mandlekar the information in 10 days.
Unsatisfied with the high court order, the SIC along with the AA and PIO made a petition to the Leave Patent Appeal (LPA) division bench of the Nagpur division of the Bombay High Court. The judge slammed Mr Mandlekar for seeking voluminous information. The order stated: “It is apparent from a reading of what is stated above that instead of seeking information on some specific issues, the respondent sought general information on scores of matters. The application is vague and the application does not make it clear to the information officer as to what information is actually sought by the respondent from the officer.
“It was literally impossible for the appellants, as pointed by the learned assistant government pleader to supply the entire information sought by the respondent to the respondent within a period of 30 days. The documents ran into 3,419 pages.
“We had asked the respondent while hearing of this letters patent appeal as to what action did the respondent take in pursuance of the information sought by the respondent after the information was supplied and it was replied by the respondent appearing in person that nothing was done on the basis of the information supplied by the appellants as there was some delay in supplying the information.
“It is really surprising that thousands of documents are being sought by the respondent from the authorities and none of the documents is admittedly brought into use. We are clearly of the view in the aforesaid backdrop that the application was filed with a mala fide intention and with a view to abuse the process of law.”
What could have been the ideal solution?
The Transport Commissioner’s office is required to regularly upload such information on its website as it comes under pro-active disclosure as per Section 4 of the RTI Act
RTI experts opine that, while ‘intentions’ of the RTI applicant for seeking information are not mentioned in the RTI Act, experts say that, what the applicant asked for came under the suo motu proactive disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act but thanks to the public authority, in this case the Maharashtra Transport Commissioner’s office not uploading such information in the public domain, the citizen applicant has had to bear the brunt of a harsh court order and against his favour.
RTI applicants should be precise in the information they ask for
At the same time, experts comment that it should be lessons for RTI applicants to be precise with the information they seek and not ask unnecessarily seek lengthy information. In this case, the court observed that despite the department having assigned half a dozen persons to procure the information, it was difficult to coordinate it. The judgment states: “Officers were required to search and collect the information, which was required to be supplied to the applicant. We find that the information sought by the respondent and reproduced in this judgment was so general and extensive that it could not have been found out within a couple of days or even within a fortnight in spite of the best efforts of half a dozen persons working in that direction.”
“It is apparent from a reading of what is stated above that instead of seeking information on some specific issues, the respondent sought general information on scores of matters. The application is vague and the application does not make it clear to the Information Officer as to what information is actually sought by the respondent from the officer. It was literally impossible for the appellants, as pointed by the learned assistant government pleader.”
Following are excerpts from the Leave Patent Appeal (LPA) judgment in a chronological order:
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected].)
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