Not too long ago, that is, on 8 August 2018, in response to an unstarred question in the Lok Sabha on the subject of ‘Online RTI Applications,’ Dr Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the prime minister’s office (PMO), had stated that only citizens of India have the right to seek information under the provisions of the Rght to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. “Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) are not eligible to file an RTI application,” he is reported to have stated. Would that mean the NRIs are not citizens of India? In that case, what is the government’s definition of an NRI?
Delhi-based RTI activist, commodore (Cmde) Lokesh Batra (retd) filed an RTI application with the department of personnel and training (DoPT) after the minister’s statement to get some clarity on the definition of an NRI. He states, “As I understand it, NRIs are very much citizens of India, holding an Indian passport, but whose stay abroad exceeds 182 days in any financial year. Thus, NRIs also have the right to seek information under the provision of the RTI Act, 2005.”
In fact, the government, in its circular in 2013 had stated under ‘Right of NRIs’ that “…under the current provisions of the RTI Act, NRIs can file RTI applications seeking information either from a particular Mission or Post abroad or from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) itself. Accordingly, a fee of Rs10 per application, equivalent in local currency is accepted by Missions and Posts abroad.” Despite this, the minister made a statement, in August 2018, that NRIs cannot file an RTI application, although they have been given the facility in over 176 countries through missions and posts.
In the RTI requisition to the DoPT, the information that Cmde Batra sought through email, soon after the minister’s statement, was:
Definition of an NRI;
Certified scanned copies of a complete set of documents and notings relevant to Lok Sabha unstarred question No. 3535, starting from the time the question was first received in DoPT up to the time a response was finalised and forwarded to the Parliament (Lok Sabha).
As DoPT failed to provide the information, Cmde Batra filed a complaint to the chief information commissioner (CIC) saying that, since the DoPT did not respond to his RTI application, it should be treated as deemed refusal to provide information as per Section 7(2) of the RTI Act. Hence, he appealed to the CIC to inquire into the matter and take appropriate action and also impose penalties under Section 20(1) & 20(2) of the RTI Act.
Cmde Batra also filed a complaint with Deepa Jain, under secretary, MEA protesting against the non-reply to his RTI requisition. She replied to Cmde Batra thus: “Reference your trailing mail dated 25 September 2018 in the matter of your RTI application. It may be noted that your application was received in this ministry for point (a) i.e. "Definition of an NRI" through DoP&T which was initially transferred to Under Secretary (US) (Coordination) in MEA and now has been forwarded to the concerned CPIO, i.e., Lakshmikant Kumbhar, US (OIA-II), Room No. 1023, Akbar Bhawan, New Delhi, Tel: 24197930, Email: [email protected]
Reply would be sent by the above-mentioned CPIO to you directly. Deposition of additional fee (if required) would also be intimated to you by them.”
To that, Mr Kumbhar wrote back to Ms Jain stating, “Information requested by Commodore Lokesh Batra about the definition of NRI does not pertain to OIA-II Division. This division deals with the welfare of NRIs. Hence, I have transferred (online) the RTI request to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which deals with the citizenship issue. You may advise the DoPT accordingly.”
Cmde Batra pointed out to Ms Jain: “With reference to your trailing post, the division that deals with the welfare of NRIs, ought to know, if their target persons (availing welfare measures) are Indian citizens, holding Indian passports OR are they persons of Indian origin but have changed the citizenship and are holding foreign passports (after surrendering their Indian passports)? The entire issue is related to the eligibility of NRIs for filing RTI applications under the RTI Act.”
Cmde Batra also pointed out that, in 2013, when eIPO facilities for filing RTI in most Indian missions abroad were made available for Indians residing abroad, the term NRIs was used by the MEA. To prove his point, he provided a 23-page document which the MEA and the PMO had sent him, when he had earlier asked for these documents in 2013. He pointed out that the deliberations with MHA concluded that NRIs are Indian citizens.
Says an exasperated Cmde Batra, “On the 39th day of my RTI application dated 27 August 2018, the MEA again forwarded my application to Lakshmikant Kumbhar, US(OIA-II) & CPIO, MEA and to Pramod Kumar, Director (Foreigners) & CPIO, MHA. I need this information as, despite the record in 2013 wherein NRIs have been given the right to file RTI applications in Indian missions abroad, why is the minister contradicting it in the Lok Sabha?”
Commodore Batra is patiently waiting for the CIC hearing.
(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.