We keep hearing about public information officers (PIOs) being slammed with penalty by information commissioners for not providing information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act or for providing insufficient or wrong information. Many a time, these penalties are not even recovered from the PIOs, but hey! an RTI applicant, who recently asked for Rs25,000 compensation for harassment and delay of information, actually received the money!
Maharashtra state information commissioner Sambhaji Sarkunde slammed the Rs25,000 compensation on PIO DR Makhre from the state agricultural commissionerate. However, since she had retired, the onus was put on this public authority itself.
The RTI applicant, Dr Vikram Gaikwad, who runs a clinic in Pune but uses RTI vociferously, enthusiastically stated, “Two months after the information commission order, I was surprised to actually receive the Rs25,000 from the agricultural department.”
While the compensation was given a few months back, this fact was revealed only recently when RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar’s RTI Katta, which had gone into an online Zoom mode due to COVID-19, began its first physical katta last Sunday.
Thanks to Mr Kumbhar’s advice that any RTI applicant harassed for information in the form of delay or denial can seek compensation, Dr Gaikwad, in his second appeal and during the second appeal hearing, asked for it. And, lo and behold! he was successful. This is a classic case of empowerment of the common person through the RTI Katta.
States Mr Kumbhar, “The provision of compensation for the citizen exists in Section 19 of the RTI Act and I have been urging citizens to demand such compensation. Most often, PIOs become the biggest hurdle to providing information and getting away without accountability and the public authority without any transparency required under the sunshine law. Similarly, information commissioners slam penalties on PIOs but often do not issue show-cause notices to them. Dr Gaikwad’s case shows that citizens are empowered to be compensated if public servants do not abide by their duties under RTI.”
So, what is the information that Dr Gaikwad asked for? The matter pertains to 2016 but the second appeal was heard only a few months back. There was an outcry, through students’ protests and media, about the public examination conducted to fill up 730 vacancies in eight departments of the agricultural commissionerate.
The Maharashtra state examination board conducted the examination and sent the results to the agricultural commissionerate. The result showed several discrepancies like a sudden difference of 30 marks between the first to fifth rankers who got 181-182 marks and the sixth-ranked got 150 marks. Nearly 25 candidates who passed the exam were from one village, and two of the candidates who passed were brothers. Suspicion of mark sheets being tampered with was the primary allegation. Hence, Dr Gaikwad sought information, in the public interest, under the RTI Act.
The PIO denied information citing Section 8 (j) which states: (j) information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has not relationship to any public activity or interest; or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the central public information officer or the state public information officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information: provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the parliament or a state legislature shall not be denied to any person.
Dissatisfied with the rejection, Dr Gaikwad filed the first appeal with the first appellate authority (FAA), who asked the PIO to disseminate the information. Yet, the PIO did not provide it. Hence, Dr Gaikwad knocked at the door of the Pune zone’s state information commissioner. He also argued that the information that is available to the member of the legislative assembly (MLA) or member of the Parliament (MP) should be accessible to him. That cut ice with the information commissioner and perhaps propelled him to slam the financial compensation sought by Mr Gaikwad.
Subsequently, Mr Gaikwad received the information, but that is another story. He has been filing RTIs for common person’s problems like bus services, 7/ 12 extracts of lands in rural areas and so on. Bravo!
(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”.