We have rarely heard of any recoveries of penalties slammed on public information officers (PIOs), but this one surely takes the cake!
Neeraj Kumar Gupta, the central information commissioner, in an order dated 19 February 2021, states, “If the Central Information Commission (CIC) starts imposing penalty on the PIOs in every other case, without any justification, it would instil a sense of constant apprehension in those functioning as PIOs in the public authorities, and would put undue pressure on them.
"They would not be able to fulfil their statutory duties under the Right to Information (RTI) Act with an independent mind and with objectivity.”
Mr Gupta further warns, “Such consequences would not auger well for the future development and growth of the regime that the RTI Act seeks to bring in, and may lead to skewed and imbalanced decisions by the PIOs, appellate authorities and the CIC. It may even lead to unreasonable and absurd orders and bring the institutions created by the RTI Act in disrepute.”
So, what was the issue on which he decided to give a long rope to the central public information officer (CPIO)? Against the background of media reports in 2019 that “SBI Sold Over Rs5,851 Crore worth of Electoral Bonds (EBs) in 10 Months,” Delhi-based RTI activist, Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) filed an application to the CPIO of the department of economic affairs (DEA).
He sought information on: Phase-wise and denomination-wise information (mentioned below or as available) in respect of electoral bonds (EBs) sold mentioning the amounts in rupees:
(a) Sale and EBs start date.
(b) Sale and EBs end date.
(c) Redemption of EBs end date.
(d) Denomination-wise (i) Number of EBs sold with (ii) Amount in rupees.
(e) Denomination-wise (i) EBs redeemed with amount in rupees.
(f) Denomination-wise; amount-wise, funds transferred to PMNRF.
(g) Complete process / steps of how and who (public authority) transfers funds to PMNRF.
(h) Redeemed percentage.
The CPIO of the DEA denied information stating that it does not have the information readily available and that the State Bank of India which is also a public authority would have it.
However, Cmde Batra filed a complaint to the CIC, stating that he had reason to believe that the CPIO has withheld large amounts of information requested that is, indeed, available with the DEA.
He argues, “Large amounts of information on this matter has been provided by the DEA in a ‘Counter Affidavit dated 1 April 2019’ in the Supreme Court Case WP(C) 880/2017, in the matter of ‘ADR Vs Union of India and Others’.”
In his complaint to the CIC, Cmde Batra appealed for imposing a penalty and appropriate action on the CPIO under Section 20 (1) and Section 20 (2) of the RTI Act.
CIC Mr Gupta relied upon the ruling of the Delhi High Court in WP(C) 11271/2009 Registrar of Companies & Ors v. Dharmendra Kumar Garg & Anr delivered on 1 June 2012). This High Court order says that penalising PIOs for every small reason would be counterproductive to their functioning.
Says Cmde Batra, “Electoral Bonds Scheme-2018 has been established, governed and managed by the government and is not a private agency nor does it fall under the Companies Act.
"Despite that the government has not placed details of any sale or related data of EBs in the public domain. However, when the CPIO of the Department of Economic Affairs denied having any information, his lie was exposed. That is because all the data that I asked for is given in the form of an affidavit and submitted to the Supreme Court. Despite me bringing this to the notice of the CIC to buttress my arguments, the CIC has protected the CPIO. The CIC’s said decision needs to be analysed by experts.’’
Lately, there is lot of compassion for the PIOs who are denying information, right, left and centre on flimsy grounds and callousness toward thousands of citizens who are invoking the RTI for information in the public domain for transparency and accountability!
(Vinita Deshmukh is 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 and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)