Last week, news reports stated that Punjab’s State Information Commission (PSIC), had, despite the COVID-19 lock-down, heard 1,231 second appeals and complaints, of which 792 were heard through video conferencing of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) in district headquarters, 277 through CISCO WEBEX and 438 new second appeals or complaints were registered.
All this only in the month of June 2020! That’s an impressive score, indeed, considering the Maharashtra State Information Commission (MSIC) during the same period managed to dispose of barely 120 to 150 cases using the same technology.
Or so I thought, before I decided to go through the CIC orders of the Punjab State Information Commission by visiting its website http://infocommpunjab.com
where a string of PSIC orders in PDF file format are available. After reading through several of them, I found a common pattern of a dubious nature as the PSIC orders do not abide by the RTI Act’s basic requisites of transparency.
This means that the mere one and a half or two-page order does not contain the nature of information sought by the RTI applicant, or the grounds on which the public information officer denied information, what the order of the First Appellate Authority (FAA) was. The PSIC orders only state whether or not the information sought would be provided, leaving the reader guessing as to what the actual order is.
Here’s an example of the 27th July order by the PSIC Preety Chawla:
"The RTI application is dated 06.01.2016 whereby the information-seeker has sought information as mentioned in his RTI application. He filed complaint in the Commission on 23.03.2020 under Section 18 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (hereinafter RTI Act).
"2. Notice was issued to the parties for hearing for 27.07.2020 in the Commission
"3. Today the Complainant is not present.
"4. The Respondent states that the complete information has been provided to the Complainant. He has filed vide Commission diary no. 8459 dated 20.07.020 a copy of the receiving, given by the Complainant in lieu of receiving the information. Copy of the same is taken on record.
"5. Since, the information has been provided to the Complainant therefore, no further cause of action is left. Hence, the Complaint Case filed by the Complainant is disposed off and closed. Copy of the orders be sent to the parties.
"Sd/- Chandigarh (Preety Chawla) Dated: 27.07.2020 State Information Commissioner Punjab."
Here’s one more order of 24th July by PSIC Suresh Arora:
"The RTI application is dated 19.12.2019 vide which the appellant has sought information as enumerated in his RTI application. First appeal was filed with the First Appellate Authority (hereinafter called FAA) on 18.2.2020 and second appeal was filed in the Commission on 27.5.2020 under Section 19 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (hereinafter called RTI Act). Notice of hearing was issued to the parties for today.
"2. The appellant states that the respondents may be directed to supply the information. Whereas the representative of the respondents sent a letter bearing No. 511 dated 22.7.2020 through email, which is taken on record. It has been mentioned in the said letter that as per the decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in SLP (C) No. 27734/2012-Girish Ramachandra Deshpandey Versus Chief Information Commissioner and as per the circular issued by the Government of India on 14.8.2013 and Appeal No. CIC (Appeal Nos. 243/ICPB/2006 and 244/ICPB/2006)- Sarvesh Kaushal Vs F.C.I. and others, it is exempted under Section 8(1)(j) and no information can be provided.
" 3. It has also been mentioned in the said letter dated 22.7.2020 by the respondents that the matter is under consideration. The representative of the respondents was asked to clarify - whether the enquiry is in progress or the complaint filed by the appellant is under consideration and no enquiry officer has been appointed by the Department of General Administration.
4. After hearing both the parties, the respondent-Public Information Officer is directed to file his response/reply before the next date of hearing since the above mentioned cases are not relevant in the present case as the appellant is simply seeking information relating to the complaint filed by him only.
5. To come up on 26.8.2020 at 11.30 AM to be heard through Video Conference Facility available in the office of the Deputy Commissioner, Patiala/Cisco Webex.
D/ Dated:24.7.2020 (Suresh Arora) Chief Information Commissioner, Punjab.’’
Most of the information commission orders not only in the Punjab Commission but in also Maharashtra and Gujarat are as superficial and opaque.
So, what is wrong with the PSIC orders? Legally speaking, `judgment’ means the statement given by a judge of the grounds of an order. As per the Supreme Court order in Balraj Taneja vs V Sunil Madan case, every judgment should have the following - a concise statement of the case; the points of determination; the decision thereon and; the reason for such decision. Information commisisons have quasi-judicial powers hence this format is applicable to them too and also because the RTI Act demands transparency and comprehensive information.
According to Dr M Sridhar Acharyulu, former Central Information Commissioner, "if the central information commission (CIC) order does not give information about the nature of information sought and the statement of reason for that, it is against the spirit of the RTI Act. Reason for the order is `judgment’ and conclusion of the judgment is `order’. And both have to be provided as people should know what the matter is and the reasons for the order. Otherwise, we see that cabinet decisions are announced with much fanfare but what went into those decisions is always kept hidden. RTI gives the right to the people to expose reasons for those decisions. Similarly, a CIC order must carry the information sought and the reason for the order."
As per RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, "this is a very clerical approach to the order from an information commission. Such a superficial format derails the very spirit of the RTI Act which otherwise commands complete information. Even if I want to refer to that information commission order, I would not be able to comprehend what it is all about. With technology, the least they can do is attach the RTI application and the FAA order along with the information commission order so that those who are interested in referring have access to it. With such haphazard orders, we don’t need to have high salaried information commissioners. A clerk or better still an app software would do the job. This is one more way of diluting the RTI 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)