Thanks to an Activist’s Relentless Efforts for Over 2 Decades, Indians Abroad Can Use their International Cards for RTI Online Fee
Two days back, on 16th August, US-based non-resident Indian (NRI), Suresh Ediga tweeted: “Now all NRIs can file right to information (RTIs) using Thanks to none other than @CommodoreBatra for his relentless pursuit of ensuring RTIs can be filed by NRIs. There was an issue with the payment gateway unable to handle international cards, which Commodore Batra helped resolve.”   
The issue pertained to Indians abroad, unable to pay their RTI fee online with their international credit cards (the ones they use in the country that they reside in) since the launch of the online portal in 2013. 
In fact, on 8 August 2018, in reply to an unstarred question no3535 in the Lok Sabha on the subject 'Online RTI Applications', Dr Jitendra Singh, minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions and the prime minister's office (PMO), stated that all citizens of India have the right to seek information under the provisions of RTI Act and non-resident Indian (NRI) citizens are eligible to file RTI applications.
Delhi-based RTI activist commodore (Cmde) Lokesh Batra (retd), who has made RTI online possible for Indians abroad through his sustained campaign, had another victory on 7 August 2023 when, on the order of the central information commissioner (CIC) Saroj Punhani, the government department of personnel & training (DoPT) facilitated the payment of RTI online fees through international credit cards (meaning local credit cards of the country where Indians are residing). It took three years of his campaigning to make this a welcome reality.
Against the backdrop of the minister’s reply, he filed an RTI on 25 February 2021 with the public information officer (PIO) of the DoPT requesting this information: “Suitability/ capability of RTI online portal for the Indian citizens living abroad (holding Indian passport)/ NRIs - for facilitating the payment of RTI fees and information cost, using Master/ Visa cards issued by the foreign banks abroad.”
Surprisingly, the CPIO, on 19 March 2021, gave the wrong information stating that “Payment can be made through internet banking of SBI, debit/credit cards of Master/ Visa and RuPay cards.” This was not true as NRIs who did not have Indian credit cards could not process their payment on the online RTI portal.
Mr Batra rued that the reply of the CPIO was false and misleading as it failed to respond to the RTI query related to the issue of Master/ Visa cards issued by foreign banks abroad. He filed a first appeal but got no relief and so filed a second appeal with the CIC.
In the meanwhile, he also filed an RTI application with the State Bank of India, which replied that “SBI payment gateway accepts the foreign card transactions (Master/ Visa Card) issued by international banks. To enable this functionality at the RTI online portal, DOPT, govt. of India has to make a request to SBI to enable the functionality of foreign card transactions. After enabling the foreign card payment option, payment can be made by using a foreign card.” So, all it required was for the government to give a go-ahead to the SBI.

The CIC hearing was held on 5 April 2023, and the order was promulgated on 7 June 2023. While CIC Saroj Punhani felt that Mr Batra was asking for ‘clarification’ from the CPIO and not ‘information’, she admonished the CPIO and FAA for mechanically treating the RTI request without any application of mind.

Ms Punhani, slamming the FAA in particular, observed in her order that “The FAA also appears to have not bothered to review the contents of the CPIO’s reply before passing the mechanical order conveying or rather conjecturing that the CPIO’s reply “seems” to be in order. The adverse remarks recorded against Varsha Sinha, director (IR) & FAA in another case of the appellant heard on the same date vide File No: CIC/DOP&T/A/2020/600607 is endorsed in the instant case as well.”
CIC Punhani also took on the CPIO and observed thus in her order: “The CPIO did not point out the nonconformity of the RTI application to section 2(f) of the RTI Act, rather he provided factual input, which was not even asked for and does not aid the issue raised by the appellant in any manner if that was the intention behind the CPIO’s reply.”
Ms Punhani, however, considering the importance of the issue, kept aside the fact that Mr Batra had not strictly conformed to section 2 (f) of the RTI Act. She opined that “As a proactive measure, the CPIO should have looked into the issue raised in the RTI application to facilitate the appellant on similar lines as that of the CPIO, SBI, who has informed the appellant about the technical resolution that may be adopted by DoPT to enable payment via foreign bank cards.”
Ms Punhani directed the CPIO to write to the “competent authority” to look into the concern flagged by Mr Batra and the reply given by the SBI, which requires a go-ahead from the authority.
On 1 August 2023, Cmde Batra filed an RTI with DoPT to find out the follow-up actions taken on the said CIC Order. On 9 August 2023, in response to the RTI - DoPT stated that "SBI, vide email dated 7 August 2023, has informed that the facility of foreign cards has been enabled for online payments through RTI online portal. CIC is being informed in compliance to their decision on the matter."
And lo and behold! Like Mr Ediga, every other Indian staying abroad can pay the RTI online fees with his or her international credit card of the country he or she is residing in! More power to RTI!
(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”.)
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