Cutting the roots of RTI

The Right to Information Act, enacted in 2005 with objective to improve quality of governance through dissemination of information to the citizens and making them active participants in public administration, appears to be in a crisis in Karnataka. 

Thus, cracks are appearing in the RTI edifice. While the overuse and misuse of the Act is of concern and needs to be dealt with separately, more serious are the attempts made by some of the Public Information Officers (PIOs) in refusing to entertain more than three applications in a year.

It all started with an appeal made by an office bearer of the Human Rights and Eradication of Corruption Forum. He had sought information relating to layouts formed, unauthorised layouts identified by the Gram Panchayat etc, in the jurisdiction of Vishweshwarapura Gram Panchayat in Nelamangala taluk of Bengaluru rural district.

Ideally, this information should have been published by the Gram Panchayat suo motu as required under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act and one need not apply for this information. Yet, the PIO, who is also the Panchayat Development Officer, refused to provide information on several grounds.

The PIO replied that only citizens can seek information and an organisation is ineligible to use the RTI Act. He also replied that citizens cannot ask questions like ‘why’, ‘what’ ‘when’ or ‘how’ while seeking information.

Both these grounds do not stand the scrutiny of the RTI Act. The Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) has delivered several orders clarifying that if the application has the name and signature of the applicant, it should be considered a ‘citizen’ and the letterhead of the association should be taken for purposes of postal address.

Even if the application contains phrases like ‘why’, ‘what’ ‘when’ or ‘how’, information is to be given, provided it is available in the records of the public authority. The applicant preferred an appeal in the Karnataka Information Commission (KIC). During the hearing in the KIC, the PIO quoted a non-existing Supreme Court order, which was recorded in the order. The KIC decided the appeal in favour of the PIO without making any reference to the SC decision. Nor did it ask the PIO to submit a copy of the court decision.

The order made a mention of the court decision. The damage was done. After public outcry, the KIC did clarify the position, but the PIOs continue to quote this decision of KIC to defend their refusal to provide information.

In January 2019, an applicant from Tumakuru sought information relating to the development works taken up and the progress made, from the Tumakuru Smart City Limited (TSCL). The citizen would not have had an occasion to ask for this information, provided the TSCL had made it public under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act and the PIO could have given a suitable reply.

Instead, he/she has quoted the KIC decision containing the reference to a non-existing SC order. The PIO has also replied that the applicant has already submitted six applications during that financial year.

In another instance, a journalist from Ranebennur sought some information from the District Welfare Officer for the Differently Abled, Haveri. The PIO concerned, quoting the KIC order containing the reference to non-existing SC order, replied that the required information cannot be provided, since the journalist/applicant has submitted 27 applications. The PIO rejected all the 27 applications.

In another instance, a citizen from Jagaluru submitted 27 applications (may be a coincidence) seeking information from the Assistant Executive Engineer, Jagaluru, Davangere District. Here, the PIO replied that out of 27 applications, information for three applications will be provided and others rejected.

Restrictions placed

There is nothing in the RTI Act that restricts the number of applications a citizen can submit or the number of issues on which information that can be sought from a public authority. However, in Karnataka, in terms of Rule 14, certain restrictions have been placed on the number if issues, questions and number of words used in the application, not on the number of applications. 

The CIC has given some decisions cautioning the information seekers not to use RTI Act at their whims and fancy. The CIC has observed that overuse of RTI Act by a few citizens is disturbing and a burden on the public authorities. But it has never put any numerical conditions.

Similarly, there is nothing in the RTI Act that stops a citizen from submitting as many applications as he wishes, provided all other conditions are fulfilled.

It is true that a handful of citizens are submitting hundreds of applications thereby disturbing the normal functioning of the administration. Further, in most of the cases, the information sought has no public interest involved in it.

But that should not affect the implementation of the RTI Act. Proper understanding and use of RTI Act should suffice to deal with such instances. The KIC has the responsibility of making its stand clear to all public authorities in Karnataka so that reference to the non-existing SC order is stopped.

(The writer is with Consumer Rights Education and Awareness Trust, Bengaluru)

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