Transparency activists always complain that officers find one or the other reason to block the release of information sought under the RTI Act and Information Commissioners (ICs) are reluctant to impose penalties on them.
And, the latest estimate by the activists claims that the ICs might not have imposed fine of around Rs 203 crore a year on such officials, thus putting in question deterrence value that such penalties were supposed to have provided. The study is based on randomly selected 549 orders of the CIC between January and March this year.
The preliminary findings of an 'Assessment of Orders of the Central Information Commission (CIC)' by Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies showed that 56% orders of the CIC studied recorded one or more violations listed in RTI Act in which process penalty imposition should have been triggered.
Of this, only in 28% cases, the ICs issued notices to Principal Information Officers (PIO). "Penalty was imposed only in 4% of the cases in which it was potentially imposable," it said.
"In terms of the amount of potential penalty foregone by ICs, the analysis of 549 orders showed that by foregoing penalties in cases where it was potentially imposable, ICs caused a potential loss of more than Rs 55.7 lakh. Extrapolating this nationally, an estimated loss of Rs 203 crore is being caused annually by ICs not imposing penalties," the study said.
"As per assessments of 2014, 2017 and 2018, annually ICs across India dispose of an estimated two lakh appeals and complaints. Since for 549 cases disposed of, potential loss of Rs 55.7 lakh was caused, hence the loss in 2 lakh cases can be estimated to be Rs. 203 crore," it said.
The study does not give much importance to the revenue lost and say what is more significant is the "loss of deterrence value that the threat of penalty was supported to have provided. "This has resulted in PIOs denying information, delaying information, not responding at all, or violating other provisions of the RTI Act with impunity, without fear of consequences," it said.
As per the Section 20 of RTI Act, a penalty could be imposed on PIOs if they deny or delay in providing information without any reasonable cause, knowingly giving incorrect, incomplete or misleading information, destroys information which was subject of any request and obstruct in any manner the furnishing of information.
“The laxity in imposing penalties is also allowing PIOs to take liberties with the RTI Act at the cost of the public,” it said.
Another issue highlighted by the study was the “growing tendency” to exempt information from disclosure citing grounds which were not provided in law.
“From among the appeals where part or full information was denied, more than 60% denials were in violation of the RTI Act...The assessment found that in several cases information is denied without citing any specific exemption under the RTI Act,” it said.