In a rare action, Rahul Singh, information commissioner (IC) of Madhya Pradesh (MP) has issued an arrest warrant on 20th September against Dr Vikram Singh Verma, chief medical and health officer (CMHO) of Burhanpur district, who is also the public information officer (PIO). Mr Singh was irked by the four continuous years of defiance and non-compliance with orders of the state information commission (SIC). Dr Verma had earlier been issued a show-cause notice asking why disciplinary action should not be initiated against him. In 2009, the information commissioner from Arunachal Pradesh had issued the first such arrest warrant against a PIO.
Dr Vikram Singh Verma and Akash Tripathi, commissioner of the directorate of health services of MP, are charged with disregarding their duties as PIO and showing blatant disregard to the orders of SIC.
This historic action emanates from an RTI (Right to Information) application filed by Sadashiv Sonwane on 10 August 2017, seeking information on posting and appointment of drivers with the health department in Burhanpur district.
When Dr Verma did not reply within the stipulated 30 days, Mr Sonwane filed a first appeal. On 7 October 2017, the first appellate authority (FAA) ordered Dr Verma to disclose the information; but the PIO refused to comply.
Then on 22 March 2018, Mr Sonwane filed his second appeal with the SIC.
Information commissioner Mr Singh says, “The SIC, while hearing the case, issued numerous summons dated 18 October 2019, 29 November 2019, 21 September 2020, 2 November 2020, 16 December 2020 and 10 February 2021. However, the PIO failed to attend any proceedings or produce any document in compliance with the summons without providing any justifiable reasons or lawful excuse.”
Mr Singh’s order also observes, “(The) SIC had also directed the commissioner of health services on these dates to ensure the appearance of the PIO but having not ensured the compliance, the commissioner violated the rule 8 (4) of MP RTI Appeal and Fees Rule 2005.’’
Finally, on 16 December 2020, SIC imposed a penalty of Rs25,000 on Dr Verma and asked the commissioner of health services in MP to recover the penalty amount from the CPIO if he fails to deposit the amount with the SIC within a month. The SIC had again, on consecutive dates, on 7th April, 7th June and 7 August 2021, asked the commissioner to deduct the penalty amount from the salary of the PIO and deposit it with the SIC. The commissioner did not do so.
In what can be termed as scathing remarks on the defiant bureaucracy, Mr Singh in his order, stated, “conduct and demeanour of the PIO and the commissioner clearly reflects apathetic disregard of the law passed by the Parliament for creating transparent and accountable governance.”
“It is disheartening and disappointing to see officers, who are responsible and obligated to citizens under the RTI Act, are actively neglecting, violating, and obstructing the operation of the RTI Act, which is part of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India,” Mr Singh further stated.
Calling for strict action in this appeal, Mr Singh says, “The SIC, as a statutory body established to promote and uphold the letter and spirit of the RTI Act, cannot remain a mute spectator to such blatant repeated violations of the RTI Act. If such violations are not addressed properly, it will create a mockery of the law and institutions established to uphold the law.”
Can the SIC actually arrest a PIO for non-compliance? Probably anticipating this question, Mr Singh’s order cites specific rules from the Central RTI Act and Madhya Pradesh’s rules to back his action. They are:
• Once the PIO violates Section 7 (1) of RTI Act 2005, by not providing information within 30 days of the RTI application, a penalty of Rs250 per day, not exceeding the maximum penalty of Rs25,000 shall be imposed guilty PIO under Section 20 of the Act. The PIO is expected to deposit the amount with the SIC within one month.
• As per Rule 8 (6)(3)(i) of MP RTI (Fees & Appeal) Rules, 2005, the PIO has been mandated to deposit the imposed penalty with the SIC within one month of the receipt of penalty order issued by the SIC.
• As per Rule 8 (6)(iii) of the MP RTI (Fees & Appeal) Rules, if the PIO fails to deposit the imposed penalty amount within the prescribed time limit, SIC shall report to the concerned disciplinary authority to take disciplinary action and ensure recovery of imposed penalty amount against the PIO.
• Section 19 (8)(a) of RTI Act says the commission has the power required by a public authority to take any such steps as may be necessary to secure compliance with the provisions of this Act. Rule 8 (4) and Section 19 (7) of RTI Act state that the order of the SIC shall be binding on the concerned officer.
State IC Rahul Singh thus issued an arrest warrant under order XVI Rule 16 of Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) and Section 18(3) of RTI Act. He directed the deputy inspector general (DIG) of Indore division to execute the warrant to secure the personal attendance of Dr Vikram Singh before the SIC at 12noon on 5 October 2021 in court room No4.
The warrant reads: “Dr Vikram Singh shall give bail himself in the sum of Rs5,000 to attend before me on 11 October 2021, at 12noon; he may be released.”
Mr Singh has also directed the commissioner of the directorate of health services to ensure recovery of the penalty and initiate disciplinary action against Dr Verma within 15 days of the receipt of SIC order.
(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”.)