Although the Right to Information (RTI) Act empowers information commissioners (ICs) to impose penalties of up to Rs25,000 on erring public information officers (PIOs) and, although they have the power to issue show-cause notices to them, the dismal fact is that a negligible amount has been recovered out of the Rs3.12 crore penalty levied by 24 Central and state information commissioners in FY21-22.
The reason for this poor recovery from errant PIOs is because most of the ICs hesitate to serve show-cause notices to the PIOs, which is mandatory for next step of penalising them.
Between 1 July 2022 and 30 June 2022, 3,887 show-cause notices were issued to PIOs under the penalty clause of the Act, by the 15 commissions which provided relevant information under RTI queries. Karnataka imposed the maximum penalty amounting to Rs1.4 crore followed by Madhya Pradesh (Rs47.50 lakh), and Haryana (Rs38.81 lakh).
The key finding in the ‘Report Card of Information Commissions 2021-2022’ observes that, “the penalty clause is one of the key provisions in terms of giving the law its teeth and acting as a deterrent for PIOs against violating the law. Whenever an appeal or a complaint shows that one or more of the violations listed in the RTI Act has occurred, the commission should initiate penalty proceedings under section 20. The Act requires the commission to give the PIO an opportunity of being heard before imposing penalty (commissions usually issue a show-cause notice asking PIOs to show cause why penalty should not be levied).”
However, the study found that the ICs imposed penalties in an extremely small fraction of the cases in which penalty was imposable. “In fact, commissions appear to be reluctant to even ask the PIOs to give their justification for not complying with the law,” says RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj, who is part of the team making the annual report card on the performance of Central and state information commissioners.
The SIC of Haryana issued the maximum number of show-cause notices to PIOs after slamming penalties—1,891—followed by Punjab at 839. The SIC of Himachal Pradesh stated that, though information is not maintained by the SIC on the number of show cause notices issued, the notice for hearing of cases sent to public authorities mentions that the PIO should “show cause as to why action under Section 20 of the RTI Act, 2005 may not be initiated against him for not disposing of RTI application as per provisions of Act…”
The SICs of Gujarat and Nagaland stated that they had not issued any notices under Section 20, even though they imposed penalties in multiple cases.
CIC and SICs of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand stated that they did not maintain this information. SIC of Maharashtra provided incomplete information while the Odisha commission did not provide any reply. SICs of Jharkhand and Tripura were defunct during the period under review. SIC of Tamil Nadu strangely replied to the researchers of this study that, though the information sought under the RTI Act has been prepared, it can be furnished “only after getting the approval of the State Legislative Assembly”!
According to Ms Bharadwaj, “Analysis of the figures for 24 ICs (which provided information on both the number of cases disposed and the number of cases where penalty was imposed) shows that penalty was imposed in just 3% of the cases disposed by the ICs.”
A previous study by this forum showed that, in a random sample of CIC orders of the Central and state commissions, on average, 59% orders recorded one or more violations listed in Section 20 of the RTI Act. The information commissions, though, did not impose penalties in 95% of the cases where penalties were imposable.
The repercussions of this callous attitude by most information commissions are serious. Says Ms Bharadwaj, “Non-imposition of penalties in deserving cases by commissions sends a signal to public authorities that violating the law will not invite any serious consequences. This destroys the basic framework of incentives built into the RTI law and promotes a culture of impunity.”
The report examines the performance of all 29 commissions in India in terms of the number of appeals and complaints registered and disposed of by them, the number of pending cases, estimated waiting time for the disposal of an appeal/ complaint filed in each commission, frequency of violations penalised by commissions and transparency in their working.
(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”.)