Madhya Pradesh Information Commissioner Fines PIO Rs25,000 for ‘Fixing’ Hearing with RTI Applicant
The Madhya Pradesh state information commission (MPSIC) has been facing an unusual problem. Right to Information (RTI) applicants, who file second appeals with the state’s CIC (chief information commissioner) after being denied information by the relevant public information officers (PIOs), suddenly do an about turn. During the second appeal hearing before the SCIC, the very applicants suddenly say that they do not want or need the information anymore. Some have even come up an affidavit to make the point. Several ICs in Madhya Pradesh have faced this strange situation.
 
Things got even more bizarre at a second appeal hearing on 9 October 2020, by information commissioner Rahul Singh. The PIO came to the hearing armed with an affidavit on behalf of the RTI applicant which said that he did not need the information anymore, hence, the PIO had no obligation to furnish it. 
 
Mr Singh proved to be one jump ahead of the PIO. Just a few days earlier, the RTI applicant had been specifically asked by the IC if he still wanted the information, since it the matter was three years old. This was done before he fixed the hearing date. The applicant had replied that he still wants the information. So the sudden volte-face during the appeal caused suspicion that there was a tacit understating between the applicant and the PIO. Mr Singh decided to set an example.
 
Mr Singh stated that PIOs often convince RTI appellants to settle matters among themselves to avoid punishment meted out by the state information commission for denial of information. Mr Singh therefore decided to fine the PIO Rs 25,000 since he had attempted to fix the proceedings. He also issued a stern warning to both the RTI applicant and the PIO. 
 
This hearing pertained to an RTI application filed by Dr Ajay Shankar, a lawyer in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. The application, filed three years ago at tehsildar of Raghuraj Nagar of Satna district’s office sought information about the laws and rules under which the tehsildar undertook the work of the revenue inspection board and asked for a list of his responsibilities there. 
 
The PIO BK Mishra of Raghuraj Nagar Satna dismissed the application on the grounds that it was worded as a question and the RTI Act only requires him to provide information that is available and not answer questions. When Dr Shankar filed a first appeal, the first appellate officer (FAA) ordered that the information be provided. In spite of this order, the PIO refused to provide the information.
 
The second appeal reached the office of information commissioner Rahul Singh after a three-year delay and he scheduled a hearing on 9 October 2020. 
 
During the hearing, the RTI applicant, Dr Shankar, said that he no longer required the information and asked for the matter to be settled and the file closed. He also said that he had received the information in the past. The PIO, Mr Mishra presented an affidavit by Dr Ajay Shankar to this effect.
 
Observing this tacit understanding between the two, Mr Singh, admonished both parties, since the applicant had earlier confirmed that he did, indeed, want the information.
 
Mr Singh stated in his order that the Commission cannot view such fixing as a mute spectator as it would adversely affect the provisions of the Act. He also said that many such cases have come before the Commission in which the appellant, during the hearing, first demands action against the PIO and then when the SIC initiates the process, the appellant and the PIO reach an agreement, in order to avoid punishment. 
 
After this, the appellant presents a certificate of satisfaction in favor of the PIO seeking to end the case. Mr Singh also said that such fixing affects the basic spirit of the Act hampering transparency in the functioning of the administration.
 
Mr Singh also took the RTI applicant Dr Ajay Shankar to task. Asked when the information had been provided in the past (based on which he wanted to withdraw his RTI request), it was determined that the PIO had provided the information only after Mr Singh had issued a notice and date of the second appeal hearing. The IC Singh said in his order that it is clear that the appellant Dr Ajay Shankar had no intention of seeking information but had some other motive for obtaining the information.
 
When Dr Shankar asked Mr Singh to forgive PIO Mishra, the IC told the appellant that if he has so much sympathy for the PIO, he was free to pay the Rs25,000 fine himself on behalf of the PIO. On hearing this, Dr Ajay Shankar changed his stand and said that he was merely sharing an opinion in favor of the PIO Mishra.
 
The State Information Commissioner says, had the appellant ended the matter before the notice for the second appeal hearing was issued, it would have been in accordance with the Act. If action is initiated as per the will of the appellant, then the reversal of the appellant's stand is not in accordance with the Act. 
 
Also, the provision of punishing the PIO under the RTI Act does not depend on the will of the appellant as mentioned in Section 20. Public information officers are compulsorily punished for violation of the Act and this is not an optional provision.  
 
Mr Singh also objected to the fact that the affidavit issued by the appellant was in possession of the PIO. It was clear that the affidavit was prepared after an understanding and discussion between the two and given by the appellant to PIO Mishra.
 
Mr Singh instructed the tehsildar DK Mishra at Tehsil Raghurajanagar in Satna to pay a fine of Rs25,000 and deposit the fine amount within one month to the Commission and also to register a noting of this fine in the service book of Mr Mishra, the PIO.
 
The entire proceeding of the hearing by the commission was also broadcast live on its Facebook page. Watch the live transmission of the hearing here…
 
(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”.) 
 
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    COMMENTS

    raviforjustice

    1 month ago

    A very interesting case indeed. I am glad that there is at least one IC who means business. Rahul Singh checking with the appellant about the info he sought days before sending notice for hearing was probably born out of his experiences earlier. The affidavit of the appellant was rightly dismissed as irrelevant as the Act mandates penalty for the simple reason of delay, which in this case was definitely more than 100 days, demanding Rs 25000/ as penalty. But will the PIO be able to go to court and get the penalty waived based on the affidavit of the appellant remains to be seen.

    REPLY

    glnprasad52

    In Reply to raviforjustice 1 month ago

    SPIO may not go for Court as the HC several times decided that no one can have a say on IC decision and it was purely his discretion, and the citizen's right is only for information and nothing else.

    glnprasad52

    1 month ago

    Simply great. If the same position continues, the real purpose of RTI enactment is served. The second appeals will drastically drop at least 50% by next month. What prevents other ICs to follow in line with the simple clause of penalties is not known.

    ak.upadhyay

    1 month ago

    Good job Rahul Singh Ji. Long live.

    In 15 Years Over 2.25 Lakh RTI Second Appeals Pending, Thanks to Laggard Information Commissioners and Their Appointments
    The RTI Act 2005, which celebrates its 15th birth anniversary today, does not have much to sing and dance about, as the top-of-the-chart officers, that is information commissioners has let down this one of strongest transparency laws in the world, thanks to the sluggishness in the performance (or the absence of it) of information commissioners across the country and deliberate negligence of governments in the centre and states in filling up vacancies.
     
    In what can be termed as a rude joke to the RTI Act, which is the only citizen-friendly law that has empowered him to demand and procure information from most of the government departments, the backlog of second appeals of 20 information commissions across the country stands at a whopping 2,21,568 as of July 2020. And on a more serious note, only 2.2% of the public information officers (PIOs) have been penalised, thus letting most of them scot free!!
     
    These revelations are a part of the `Key findings of the "Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2020’ carried out by Delhi based Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS). It has compiled a report on the performance of the 29 ICs across various states.
     
    The report observes that 15 years after the implementation of the RTI Act, "the functioning of information commissions is a major bottleneck in the effective implementation of the RTI law.’’ The reasons are as follows:
     
    One of the primary reasons for the backlog is the failure of Central and state governments to take timely action to appoint ICs to the central information commission and state information commissions, respectively.
     
    Large backlog of appeals and complaints in many commissions across the country has resulted in inordinate delays in disposal of cases, which render the law ineffective.
     
    Performance of ICs, in terms of exercising their powers to ensure proper implementation of the law, has been a cause of great concern to the RTI community. Commissions have been found to be extremely reluctant to impose penalties on erring officials for violations of the law.
     
     
    The findings of the report are as follows:
     
    Nine out of 29 (31%) information commissions are currently headless, i.e., functioning without a chief. These include the CIC and the SICs of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Goa, Manipur, Telangana, Jharkhand, Tripura and Nagaland.
     
    2 SICs—Jharkhand and Tripura—are completely defunct as no new commissioners have been appointed upon the incumbents demitting office. 
     
    About 1,78,749 appeals and complaints were registered between 1 April 2019 and 31 July 2020 and nearly two lakh cases (1,92,872) were disposed.
     
    The number of appeals and complaints pending on 31 July 2020 in the 20 information commissions, from which data was obtained, stood at 2,21,568. The backlog has been steadily increasing.
     
    The report calculates the estimated time each commission would need to dispose a new appeal/complaint.  Odisha SIC would take 7 years and 8 months to dispose a matter. In Jharkhand SIC, it would take 4 years and 1 month, while in Maharashtra, CIC, Rajasthan and Nagaland it would take 2 years or more. The assessment shows that nine commissions would take more than a year to dispose of a matter.
     
    Penalty was imposed in just 2.2% of the cases disposed by information commissions.
     
    The report is primarily based on an analysis of information accessed under the RTI Act, from 29 information commissions across India. A total of 159 RTI applications were filed with state information commissions (SIC) and the central information commission (CIC). 
     
    The information sought included: 
     
    Number of commissioners serving in each commission for the period April 2019 to July 2020 and their backgrounds;
     
    The number of appeals and complaints registered, disposed, returned by each IC for the period April 2019 to July 2020;
     
    Number of appeals and complaints pending before each IC on 31 July 2020; 
     
    The quantum of penalties imposed by each IC, and the amount recovered, for the period April 2019 to July 2020;
     
    The quantum of compensation awarded by each IC, for the period April 2019 to July 2020;
     
    Number of cases in which disciplinary action was recommended by each IC; 
     
     
    States Anjali Bharadwaj, one of the members of SNS, “This initiative is part of an effort to undertake ongoing monitoring of the performance of information commissions across the country with the objective of improving the functioning of commissions and strengthening the RTI regime.”
     
    Highlighting the importance of the role of information commissioners of the RTI Act, the Report states that, “the commissions have wide-ranging powers including the power to require public authorities to provide access to information, appoint public information officers (PIOs), publish certain categories of information and make changes to practices of information maintenance.
     
    “The commissions have the power to order an inquiry if there are reasonable grounds for one, and also have the powers of a civil court for enforcing attendance of persons, discovery of documents, receiving evidence or affidavits, issuing summons for examination of witnesses or documents. 
     
    “Section 19(8)(b) of the RTI Act empowers information commissions to “require the public authority to compensate the complainant for any loss or other detriment suffered.”
     
    “Further, under section 19(8) and section 20 of the RTI Act, information commissions are given powers to impose penalties on erring officials, while under Section 20(2), commissions are empowered to recommend disciplinary action against a PIO for 'persistent' violation of one or more provisions of the Act.”
     
    (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”.)
     
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    COMMENTS

    mahesh.bhatt

    1 month ago

    Welcome to alternate Tariq pe Tariq circuses Welcome to Junglee Bharat.con Mahesh Bhatt Kirticorp

    kd.paranjpe

    2 months ago

    The RTI act was enacted to empower citizens. It has improved the the responsiveness of a few departments of the Govt. However, a lot needs to be done to ensure that all Govt Depts respond to Requests for Information (RoI). The Volunteer Organization SNS could also provide information, the number of answers provided. We may have a classification as a) Unresponsive b) evasively responsive, c) Uselessly responsive and d) Usefully responsive.
    Another classification could also classify based on the extent of delay in responding. These bits of information could help us to assess the Govts accountability to the citizenry.

    svrsama2015

    2 months ago

    A very timely piece articulating the ground realities and highlighting the findings of SNS. The ruling establishment is clearly determined to obstruct functioning of the RTI Act, which is no less heinous than causing obstruction of justice. Truly, our country has degenerated into a fiefdom of politicians and bureaucrats. Any instrument that aims to check the arbitrariness of these two groups is systematically sabotaged by the reigning aristocracy....Kudos to the RTI warriors for keeping up the struggle .

    S.SuchindranathAiyer

    2 months ago

    No such pathetic law as RTI can overcome the Colonial Commissars who run India's Quota (Reservations / License) and Corruption (Extortion / Percentage Raj to Communist precepts, but accountability.
    Thus:
    (1) Overhaul all the laws of the country to become citizen centric rather than to perpetuate India’s colonial-communist legacy tyranny over the commons.
    (2) Repeal all laws that do not DIRECTLY contribute to the safety, prosperity, welfare and security of the Individual.
    (3) Dismantle all the departments which are made redundant by these revised laws as they are no longer required to harass and extort from the ordinary citizen.
    (4) Define each and every role on Government Pay Roll from Prime Minister, Chief Justice and President down to every Class four Officer by listing their respective unique and general objectives and Key Responsibility Areas (KRA). Their Key Performance Parameters (KPP), Their accountabilities for non performance. Create structure charts and maps that lay this out for public access. Every Performance Parameter must have a means of quantifying accomplishment over time to qualify as a KPP and must be a derivative of the KRA.
    (5) Set up a framework (system) which ensures that every role incumbent negotiates the role and commits quantitative performance goals with the immediate superior and those whom the role benefits, every quarter, to continue to be paid salaries. Penalize non performance and reward performance by increments and bonuses, salary reductions and termination.
    (6) Make bribe taking a criminal capital offense, make bribe giving a non offense as power is with the bribe taker and therefore all bribery is actually extortion by the bribe taker.
    (7) Set up a a public feedback system whereby members of the public (the customers of each and every role) can assess the performance of the role incumbent on the basis of Performance Parameters, with comments/ justification and these are given at least 50% weightage in performance appraisal for purposes of increments, bonuses, salary reduction, removal, etc.

    Weathering Many a Storm in 15 Years, RTI Strives To Make Citizens the True Rulers of the Country
    Fifteen years back the Right to Information (RTI) Act became operational on 12 October 2005. It was the auspicious day of Vijayadashmi and appeared to herald a new revolution in Indian democracy. Citizens who had been advocating this law saw an opportunity of converting India’s defective elective democracy into a true participatory democracy: the swaraj that was promised to the nation’s rulers, namely, its citizens. The RTI movement which had begun in Devdungri village in Rajasthan with Aruna Roy in the early 1990s, saw its dream being translated into one of the best transparency laws in the word. 
     
    In a series of judgements  from 1975, the Supreme Court acknowledged that Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution guaranteed the right to free speech, the right to publish and the right to information as fundamental rights. However, while the first two rights were recognised and their scope was increased over the years, the right to information was languishing in the absence of a proper method to give access to information to all citizens. The RTI Act 2005 codified this right very well. 
     
    The draft of the Act had inputs from RTI activists and its provisions were well crafted. The law in its preamble asserted that democracy requires transparency in functioning, and it was necessary to contain corruption and hold governments accountable. After recognising that there may be some practical constraints in achieving this, it harmonised the conflicting interests and gave India one of the best transparency laws in the world.  
     
    With this strong law citizens started spreading and educating others in using the law. In the first five to seven years, citizens realised the potential of this law which they could enforce.
     
    They realised they could get accountability and act as vigilance monitors of their government. Many scams were uncovered and public servants began to treat the citizens, the rulers of the nation, with some respect. Individual citizens started feeling empowered. Citizens started getting ration cards, rations, income-tax (I-T) refunds and many other services. 
     
    Above all, citizens began to get accountability. The threat of penalties made public servants sensitive towards discharging their duty of providing information.  The simple law was easy to use and implement. There are thousands of RTI activists who teach, train and help others without any charges. This has led to the RTI becoming known and used across the nation.
     
    A few crore RTI applications have been filed in the entire country during the past 15 years. One of the weaknesses of the citizen movement has been the failure of the movement to get even 20% women users. RTI activists must aim to ensure that at least 50% of the users are women.  
     
    However, there has been a resistance of those in power towards RTI. While everyone pays lip service to transparency, it has been noticed that most people want others to be transparent but are reluctant to actually practise it themselves. The corrupt detest it for obvious reasons and most of those who are honest take offence to being asked to share their decision making and actions because of arrogance. 
     
    Since most of the power centres of governance are covered by RTI, the resistance has transformed into a narrative painting RTI in dark colours. 
     
    One of the first unfortunate, significant signals was the Supreme Court’s observation in 2011 in CBSE vs Aditya Bandopadhyay “(RTI) Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquillity and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.” 
     
    This observation has been quoted many times with glee by officials who are now seeing justification in not observing the law. 
     
    On the other hand, most information commissions—which had been created to act as the final appellate bodies—were not functioning satisfactorily. Second appeals in the commissions were languishing at times for years and they were generally very stingy in applying the penal provisions of the law against guilty public servants. 
     
    The governments and PIOs began to see that if they did not comply with the provisions of the law they would not have to face any serious consequences. 
     
    In the worst case, the commission may rule on disclosure. Though the Act does not permit any appeals beyond the commission, these decisions are often challenged in courts by masquerading as writs. Thus, on important and current matters, it has become easy to deny the citizen’s fundamental right. 
     
    In one blatant case, the PM Cares Fund has refused to give information on its functioning despite it being a public authority as per the RTI Act since it is controlled by the government through the PM and three ministers.
     
    Information regarding purchases and various COVID related matters is not being provided and, in some cases, even details of expenditure by MLA (member of legislative assembly) funds is being blocked.  
     
    The major political parties have been declared public authorities by the central information commission. They have not challenged the decision in any court but in a display of illegal arrogance have refused to obey the statutory order. Commissioners and PIOs have denied a lot of information by disregarding the law and the Constitution by grotesque misinterpretation. 
     
    However, citizens are also building their strength to get the law implemented. They have realised the power which the Act gives them and even during Covid times many different groups are discussing and promoting RTI through virtual platforms. A PIL has been filed in the Bombay High Court to ensure all hearings by virtual platforms and also to get directions to the information commissions to dispose of all cases before them in a time bound manner.  
     
    Citizens have used the e-platforms with great enthusiasm and connections are being made across the nation. These may lead to the evolution of a common set of issues and strengthening the citizen’s fundamental right. They have been pointing out that a constriction of RTI could lead to constraints on Article 19 (1)(a) and thus on free speech and the right to publish. CJI (Chief Justice of India) SA Bobde has said last week in court: “We must also tell you that freedom of speech is the most abused freedom in recent times." RTI may progress or regress from here. 
     
    The writer is former central information commissioner. 
     
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    COMMENTS

    s5rwav

    2 months ago

    During the last 15 Years of the Right to Information Act 2005, Govt of India and Supreme Court of India has done Nothing to Set up the CIC Benches All Over India as Mandated under the Right to Information Act 2005. Even Madam #ArunaRoy and the Writer of this Article Mr #ShaileshGandhi Ex IC at CIC Prefers to Keep Mum on Decentralization of CIC by Setting up the CIC Benches All Over India. I am Babubhai Vaghela from Ahmedabad on Whatsapp Number 9409475783. Thanks....

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