No role under RTI for consumer forums

No role under RTI for consumer forums

Is a citizen seeking information under the Right to Information Act (RTI) be considered a consumer as defined in the Consumer Protection Act, 1986? If the Public Information Officer (PIO) concerned does not reply to the RTI application or gives partial information, should it be construed as ‘deficiency in service’?

Can such citizens approach the consumer redressal agencies seeking relief? The National Consumer Grievance Redressal Commission (NC) in its decision pronounced on January 8, 2015 decided the issue in the negative.

Since the RTI Act came into force, several citizens using the transparency law were dissatisfied with the outcome. While some applicants did not get any response from the PIO, there was delay in other cases. Others got partial and irrelevant replies. All this resulted in hundreds of petitions in the consumer forums.

In the absence of clarity, the decisions of the district forums and state commissions differed. When Sanjay Kumar Mishra of Punjab was denied information, he approached the district forum, which took the view that it had the jurisdiction to entertain the complaint but dismissed the complaint on the ground that there was no deficiency in the services rendered to the complainant.

In another case, Ajay Pandey and Shri Ram Kumar Gupta were denied information from the Bar Council of Uttar Pra-desh. They approached the district forum concerned by way of a complaint, seeking compensation from the Bar Council. The district forum awarded compensation amounting to Rs 25, 000.

The Bar Council of UP preferred an appeal before the State Commission and with the appeal having been dismissed, the Bar Council approached the NC. In Karnataka, Kiran Kumar used RTI to get information from the university where was a student. When denied, he approached the Karnataka Information Commission, which did not come to his rescue.

He turned to the Consumer Forum, which again dismissed the complaint holding that complainant was not a consumer. The State Commission also rejected the appeal. There were about 90 such petitions before the NC.

There were several issues before the NC. Firstly, does supply of information under the RTI constitute ‘service’ as contemplated in the CPA. The NC has observed that the definition of ‘service’ as given in Section 2(o) is wide enough to include service of any nature and expressly includes provision of facilities in connection with the purveying (supply) of news or other information.

Payment of fee

It can, therefore, be contended that supplying information in terms of RTI Act would be included within the definition of ‘service’ given in Section 2(o), provided that such services are not rendered free of charge.

The second issue was whe-ther a person, seeking information under RTI Act can be said to be a consumer within the meaning of Section 2(1)(d) of the Act, and if so, whether the jurisdiction of the Consumer Forum, in such matters is barred under the provisions of RTI Act or otherwise.

The RTI requires information seekers to pay a prescribed fee and also additional cost of providing information. This being the case, the NC has observed that so long as a consideration in the form of fee/ further fee is paid, it cannot be disputed that the information under RTI Act is supplied for consideration.

However, the NC taking into account the intent of the RTI has observed that mere payment of consideration is not conclusive of the issue involved. Referring to the various provisions of the RTI Act, the NC has taken the view that the RTI Act is a complete code in itself, which provides an adequate and effective remedy for any grievance arising out of the non-implementation of the RTI Act.

The NC has categorically decided that a person seeking information under the RTI Act cannot be said to be a consumer of the services rendered by the public authorities. Hence, consumer forums have no jurisdiction to intervene in the matters arising out of the provisions of the RTI Act.

Further, the NC has observed that an applicant aggrieved by the action or non-action of the appellate authorities designated under the RTI Act cannot be said to be a consumer. According to the NC, the appellate authorities not by themselves are responsible to supply information, though they may direct its supply to the applicant. They primarily discharge judicial/ quasi judicial functions assigned to them under the Act.

(The writer is Member, Central Consumer Protection Council, New Delhi)

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