In a stern and no-nonsense order, the Dharwad bench of the Karnataka High Court has directed all the state’s public authorities and the chief secretary to ensure that every public information officer (PIO) regularly stores information electronically so that information is quickly provided to the RTI applicant.
Coming down heavy on the callous attitude of the PIOs who are the primary source of information for dissemination, Justice Suraj Govindraj pointed out that PIOs either give piecemeal information or opt for the ‘third party consent’ route, when the information sought should have been with the public authority itself, and then blame the third party for delay in providing information. Also, he observed that often the information finally given by the PIO strangely coincides with the dates of legal intervention by the applicants.
Hence, it a terse order Justice Govindraj stated, “Directions are issued to all the authorities to have all the information stored within their offices in electronic format so that the same may be communicated to any applicant immediately on an application being filed.’’
Govindraj directed Karnataka’s government pleader to, “bring the above to the notice of the chief secretary of Karnataka and in this particular case, the secretary, revenue department and director, food and supplies department.’’
Following were the detailed observations of the judge:
• The court has come across several writ petitions of the present kind, where the dates of application and date of furnishing of the information is always brought into question. It is therefore required that the State make necessary arrangements for the data to be web hosted as regards the date on which any application is received by any information officer, the date on which the same is processed and the date on which the information is furnished. This could also be furnished electronically by way of email to the applicant if required.
• In many cases it is also seen that the information officer writes to third parties seeking information and thereafter takes umbrage under the fact that the third party has delayed the information.
• Most of the time it is seen that the public information officer was required to have this information within his or her possession and not seek information from third parties.
• In the present case, the PIO was required to have this information within his or her possession and not seek this information from third parties. The PIO ought to have had the details about how many APL cards had been issued to each and every establishment coming under her jurisdiction and how many Annapurna cards have been issued in her jurisdiction.
• As regards the quantity of rice, wheat and sugar supplied, since the supply is made by the food and civil supplies department, information should be made available and the PIO could have procured information immediately.
So, what was the exact issue?
RTI applicant Bassayya Dinnimath (who subsequently passed away before the court case was heard), had sought information from S K Sharada, the tehsildar and PIO of Savadatti taluka of Belgaum district, under the RTI Act regarding various grades of ration cards. He sought information on the following:
• How many APL cards are there and their names and card numbers
• How many BPL cards are there and their names and card numbers
• How many Antyodaya cards are there and their names and card numbers
• How many Annapurna cards are there and their names and card numbers
• What is the quantity of rice, wheat, sugar supplied to his village in the month of July, August, September – detailed information required.
He filed the application on 9 October 2009. The PIO wrote to the relevant ration card owner of the village who sent the required information on 21st October. In the meanwhile, the RTI applicant had already filed a second appeal with the information commissioner. During the pendency of the matter, the PIO supplied the required information, one and a half years later,
which is on 28 March 2011.
The information commissioner held that there was delay in furnishing the information and hence imposed a penalty of Rs5,000 on the PIO under Section 20 of the RTI Act. That’s the reason why the PIO filed a writ petition in the High Court that since he had parted with the information, a penalty on him was unfair.
The information commissioner observed that when an application under the RTI Act is filed, it is required that all the information requested for is furnished. Piecemeal furnishing of information would not satisfy the requirement of the RTI Act and hence slammed her with the penalty.
The PIO’s efforts to defend his procrastinated efforts did not bear fruit. Hope other PIOs learn a lesson!
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife and 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”.)