File in the Government Office Is Gayab? Bring in the Public Records Act!
The case of the missing files; rather, the replies that the files are missing, is a common excuse given by public information officers (PIOs) across the country. Thanks are due to the use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which led to the decision of an information commissioner.  The solution, he says, is to implement the Public Records Act, 1993 until every state implements this Act.
The Public Records Act regulates the management of documents and has strong penalising provisions, including five years' imprisonment and a fine of Rs10,000, against the officers accountable for missing of records.
Maharashtra was probably one of the first states not to let PIOs go scot-free with the excuse that files are missing and, hence, they are unable to provide information under the RTI Act. 
Vijay Kuvalekar, the former state information commissioner of Pune zone, asked the PIO to lodge a first information report (FIR) in the police station, as a document is government property, or else produce the file within 48 hours. This second appeal related to a tribal boy, who had appeared for a public competitive examination and wanted to have a copy of the list of candidates selected, merit-wise, as he did not pass but alleged that there was some discrimination. 
With this ruling of Mr Kuvalekar, the PIO stunningly procured the document within 48 hours! 
This has helped information commissioners in various second appeals.
Going a step forward, Rahul Singh, state information commissioner of Madhya Pradesh, has directed the state’s general administration department (GAD) to initiate the legislation of the Public Records Act in the state. Mr Singh also instructed the GAD to devise guidelines, in consonance with the Public Records Act, 1993, to regulate the management of documents and to have strong penalising provisions including five years' imprisonment and a fine of Rs10,000 against guilty officers accountable for the missing records, until the Public Records Act is enacted in the state.
Mr Singh passed this order while hearing a second appeal related to a missing caste certificate from the government record. As per his written order, not only were the public records and documents missing but the RTI application that was filed was also reported missing. 
What surprised Mr Singh was that no accountability has been fixed for the past three years for the missing records. Mr Singh levied a penalty of Rs58,000 against three sub-divisional magistrates and also instructed the Satna district collector to initiate an inquiry into the missing records. 
Speaking to Moneylife when contacted, Mr Singh expressed shock stating that, “Madhya Pradesh does not have its own Public Records Act. In the absence of any legal framework for the management and administration of the records, the officers have a callous and apathetic approach towards the loss, mismanagement and illegal destruction of records in government offices.”
Mr Singh also stated that “the loss of documents may have a disastrous impact, at times substantially jeopardising the lives and careers of affected individuals. I regularly get complaints regarding missing and loss of records. The complaints include the disappearance of documents in land records; missing files and documents in cases of wrongful or irregular appointments; missing documents in enquiry reports and missing documents in cases of corruption; and also the disappearance of documents in administrative actions against government officials.”
Mr Singh observes, in his order, that there have been several cases where these documents made a re-appearance after the concerned authorities were ordered, by the information commission, to file an official police report. Vanishing public records does not only affect common citizens but also, at times, puts government officers and employees at the receiving end. He gave an example by stating that when service or enquiry reports are misplaced, officials face a lot of hardship during the service period and at the time of retirement.
Presently, due to the non-existence of the Public Records Act in Madhya Pradesh, government officers and employees responsible for the disappearance and mismanagement of records are punished in accordance with the Madhya Pradesh Civil Services Rules, 1961. Due to the lack of specific and definite rules and regulations for public records, accountability is seldom fixed in such cases. Mr Singh rues the fact that the state doesn’t have a legally-tuned process for the recreation of the missing records. 
Mr Singh’s Prescription for Missing Files
  • FIR to be filed in vanishing or stolen records cases. In cases of missing documents, information commissioner Rahul Singh emphasised that the accountability and responsibility of government officials must be established in a time-bound manner. He said that if malafide intention of the government officials is proved, then the officer responsible must be punished under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code 1860. 
  • As per Section 19 of Right to Information Act, the commission has the administrative power to make the necessary changes in the provisions of the management, administration and destruction of public records. Taking a cue from this, Mr Singh directed the principal secretary GAD, Madhya Pradesh to initiate the legislation and enactment of the Public Records Act in Madhya Pradesh. 
  • Sixty-six years have passed since the establishment and constitution of Madhya Pradesh as a fully-fledged state of India but it is really astounding that Madhya Pradesh still does not have its own Public Records Act for effective administration, management and maintenance of public records, while the Centre and several other states have already enacted their own Public Records Act. 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.)
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