Agnipath, the new and controversial recruitment plan for youngsters joining the armed forces for a period of four years, has generated interest amongst right to information (RTI) activists, as the website of the ministry of defence (MoD) does not have sufficient information.
Last fortnight, the central information commission (CIC) slammed the central public information officer (CPIO) of the MoD for denying information about Agnipath recruitment as the CPIO replied to the RTI applicant that information about the scheme is a ‘secret’ – a word that does not occur in the entire Right to Information (RTI) Act, particularly Section 8 which contains exemption clauses.
CIC Vinod Kumar Tiwari observed that, besides the use of the redundant word ‘secret’, the CPIO had also denied the information under Section 8, without explaining how the exemptions claimed by him would be applicable in this case.
Quoting the Delhi High Court case of BS Mathur vs PIO, W. P. (C) 295/2011 dated 3 June 2011, CIC Tiwari reiterated a part of its contents which stated that: “...The scheme of the RTI Act, its objects and reasons indicate that disclosure of information is the rule and non-disclosure the exception. A public authority which seeks to withhold information available with it has to show that the information sought is of the nature specified in Section 8 RTI Act…”
Hence, CIC Tiwari has ordered the CPIO to “revisit the RTI application and provide the revised information/ reply as per applicable exemption of the RTI Act.”
Pune-based RTI applicant Vihar Durve had filed an RTI application on 15 June 2022 to seek the following information from the ministry of defence:
“1) Furnish me with complete details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file noting), etc. for introducing Agnipath scheme for recruitment of youth in the armed forces.
2) Furnish me about details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file noting), etc. for introducing Agniveers to be enrolled under respective service acts for four years.
3) Furnish me about details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file noting), etc. for introducing attractive monthly package with risk & hardship allowances as applicable in the three services.
4) Furnish me about details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file noting), etc. for introducing one time 'Seva Nidhi' package to be paid to Agniveers upon completion of engagement period of four years.”
The CPIO replied on 29 July 2022 stating that the file of Agnipath is classified as ‘secret’. This was the reply: “Reference your RTI application, the file wherein approval for Agnipath scheme is accorded is classified as ‘Secret’. Hence, your RTI application is rejected under section 8(1) (a) of the RTI Act-2005.”
Mr Durve filed the first appeal on 17 August 2022 but the first appellate authority (FAA) upheld the CPIO’s response of Agnipath files being under the ‘secret’ category. Mr Durve then filed the second appeal on 9 September 2022.
During the second appeal hearing on 12 January 2024, Mr Durve stated through video conferencing that the CPIO has denied information sought citing the reason as the Agnipath file being marked as a ‘secret’ file. He pleaded that the Agnipath scheme is classified as ‘secret’ and that such an exemption claimed by the respondent would not apply in his case.
The CPIO argued that he had also mentioned that the information cannot be given under section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act. He stated that under this clause the information sought by Mr Durve is “classified as confidential, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State.”
However, CIC Tiwari ruled that the CPIO cannot merely add any exemption clauses without qualifying as per a Delhi court order and has therefore requested him to revisit the RTI application.
(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".)