The Right to Information (RTI) Act, implemented on 12 October 2005, did wonders in the initial years of its implementation not only by exposing scams and scandals, but also resulted in systematic reforms. However, RTI rules (and not the RTI Act) need important modifications mainly to prevent misuse of the Act and minimise the challenge to chief information commission (CIC) verdicts in courts.
The precious time of information commissions and courts should be saved through a notification issued by the Central government to declare all public-private-partnerships, sports bodies, cooperative societies and other such bodies, and public authorities under the RTI Act. Land and building departments of Central and state governments should study all cases of allotment of land or government accommodations at subsidised rates or lease, and declare all these as public authorities under the RTI Act. In future, land or government accommodations should be provided at subsidised rates on the pre-condition of beneficiaries coming under the purview of the RTI Act.
Considering the vast participation of public money in private sector banks, all private sector banks must be under the purview of the RTI Act. Already all employees up to the highest post of chairman and managing director (CMD) are public servants according to the Banking Regulation Act. The RBI had to impose restrictions on the withdrawal of money for some time on a prominent private sector bank.
The former CMD of another prominent private sector bank is under arrest for serious charges of misappropriation of public money in the bank.
The inspection reports of private banks, revealed under the RTI Act by RBI, reveal gross misuse of public money by top management. Another private sector bank is notorious for the large number of non-performing assets (NPAs).
Heavy fluctuation in the share prices of certain private sector banks tends to raise doubts regarding the safety of public money in private sector banks.
The Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation (a subsidiary of RBI) has to pay a maximum of Rs5 lakh from state funds to each depositor of the bank, including those in the private sector which collapses due to massive irregularities, which is public-funding to declare private sector banks as ‘public authorities’ under section 2(h) of the RTI Act.
Section 27 and 28 of the RTI Act give power to competent authorities and state governments to draft their own rules which include fixing of RTI fees and mode of payment of RTI fees. Several competent authorities and states misused their power by having RTI fees as high as Rs500. Several states fixed RTI fees for filing first appeals also. However, the Supreme Court, in its verdict dated 20 March 2018, imposed a capping of Rs50 to be the maximum RTI fees.
India should be governed by the principle ‘one nation-one rule’ in respect to RTI fees and its mode of payment by clubbing the copying charges of the first 20 copied pages with basic RTI fees of Rs10 (for central public authorities) thus making Rs50 as uniform RTI fees throughout the country, inclusive of the charges of the first 20 copied pages. Fixing basic RTI fees at Rs50 will largely prevent misuse of the RTI Act.
There must not be any fees for the filing of first or second appeals. To prevent big contractors and others from misusing the provision by filing RTI applications under the names of their workers of the below poverty line (BPL) category to get copying charges in thousands of rupees waived off, persons under the BPL category may be required to pay copying charges for copied pages exceeding 20.
Handling the cost of a postal order of value of Rs10 costs the postal department around Rs50 with the cost of handling of postal orders by a public authority and bank clearing even extra. Most public authorities require postal orders in different names even though the department of personnel and training (DoPT), in its various circulars, has required postal orders towards RTI payments to be in the name of the accounts officer only.
To overcome this situation, frequent CIC verdicts and administrative requests of CIC should be accepted by the postal department to issue special RTI stamps (like earlier stamps for payment of licence fees of radios and TV sets) in denominations of Rs2, Rs10 and Rs50 which will save crores of rupees annually to public exchequers in using postal orders as the mode of payment for RTI fees. These RTI stamps should be conveniently available at all post offices and counters of public authorities and other convenient sale points. This will tackle situations where public authorities like the national green tribunal (NGT) refuse acceptance of RTI fees in cash with the nearest post office at Baroda House (New Delhi) not selling postal orders, thus putting RTI applicants in a big difficulty.
Post-free RTI applications addressed to central public authorities should be accepted at all the approximately 1,60,000 post offices rather than just about 4,500 post offices presently. It is not difficult because every post office, however small it may be, daily sends a post bag to the head post office with registered post, cash and unsold revenue articles. This post bag can carry post-free RTI applications received at the post-office.
The DoPT should issue a circular in tune with para 23 of verdict dated 2 November 2012 by the Punjab & Haryana high court in the matter ‘Fruit and Vegetable Union versus Unknown’ (CWP 4787 of 2011) which requires ID proof to be compulsorily attached with every RTI application, first appeal and petitions filed with the information commissions.
Already, the aspect has been adopted at Odisha apart from Punjab and Haryana. Those who do not want to disclose their identity can file RTI applications through a post box hired at some post office. A police enquiry conducted at the behest of some Indian missions abroad established that a petitioner approached the CIC with the name and address, both of which did not exist.
Online portals for filing RTI applications should be modified so that RTI responses and orders of first appellate authorities may also be auto-emailed rather than RTI applicants required to search the portal for the viewing of RTI responses. SMS and email alerts about the emailing of RTI responses should also be there.
Websites designed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) for central public authorities should be mandatorily for all states. This has become necessary for a state like Odisha which has made the online filing of RTI applications a mockery when it is compulsory to download online-filled RTI application, and then send it by post to the concerned department. Furthermore, the option list for payment does not include even all the banks.
An organisation named Institute Of Public Administration (IPA) has been sending letters to all public authorities coming under purview of the RTI Act regarding holding a paid two-day RTI workshop charging heavily to the tune of Rs20,000 for local public authorities and Rs40,000 for outside participants with spouse. The drafting of invitation letters looks like that of some government-authorised body like the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA).
Many public authorities, confusing the letter as if sent from a government authority, have been sending participants to attend the RTI workshop at the cost of the public exchequer. IIPA should take cognisance of the matter to prevent such tactics to mint money by private bodies.
The Delhi high court, in its order dated 8 August 2018 in WPC 8278 of 2018 in the matter ‘Anil Dutt Sharma versus Government of NCT Delhi and others’ mentioned – This Court is of the prima facie view that the Right To Information Act, 2005 would now override the Delhi Right To Information Act, 2001 as it would occupy the entire legislative field.
The Delhi RTI Act has lost due to the implementation of the RTI Act 2005. Very few applications are filed under the DRTI Act. All such acts legislated by individual states, before the RTI Act 2005 came into existence, must be repealed.
(Writer is RTI consultant holding Guinness World record for most letters published in newspapers)