Maharashtra’s Chief SIC Dr Suresh Joshi issued a stern ultimatum to officials playing the roles of Public Information Officers (PIOs) and First Appellate Authorities (FAAs). The warning extends to all public officials who play a role in providing information in response to an RTI application. This is in response to information-seekers and RTI activists who have been crying themselves hoarse for stringent implementation of RTI Act 2005.
After six rounds of discussions spread over 10 days with all the State’s Secretaries, Dr Joshi wrote a letter to Chief Secretary Johny Joseph clearly stating that all the PIOs and FAAs must act strictly in accordance with the RTI Act, or else!
This letter, which has been widely circulated by General Administration Department (GAD) among all state government departments, may be roughly divided into three components:
a) Lucidly explaining the main points and the intention of the RTI Act
b) Plugging loopholes in the way RTI Act is currently implemented
c) Directing the Chief Secretary to issue official communications to educate and warn public officials under all ministries to strictly comply with the Act
The second component is of particular interest as large numbers of RTI applicants and appellants have long been harassed by vague excuses, lack of hearings from FAAs, etc thanks to loopholes. These are the points that we have highlighted in red and blue in the English translation (pdf file).
English translation and Marathi original can be downloaded from:
The highlighted points have important practical implications in RTI implementation. They signify a shift in the way RTI is understood and implemented in the State. After reading this letter, we should closely follow up to see that all concerned authorities walk the talk.
ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE LETTER
24th February 2009
Shri Johny Joseph,
Mantralaya, Mumbai 32.
1) As you are aware, the RTI Act 2005 was enacted with a view to bring in the utmost transparency and accountability in every public administrative work and to set the procedures for giving the citizens their right to information. In a democracy, to create an informed citizenry, to bring about transparency in dealings, to make government administrative machinery answerable to citizens – these are some of the objectives of the Act.
2) Maharashtra has a tradition of activism and Anna Hazare’s efforts to bring in the right to information act and enforce its correct implementation, are well known.
3) In the past three and a quarter years since the RTI Act was passed, over 8 lakh applications have been received in the State of Maharashtra. This singular fact proves how useful the citizens feel this Act is.
4) It would fulfill the usefulness of this Act in a better way, if the Public Information Officer and the Appellate Authority were to discharge their responsibilities meticulously (literal meaning: “strictly in accordance with law”), and it would give great assurance to the public, and help in solving their queries.
5) As per Section 7(1) of the Act, PIO must provide the information as expeditiously as possible, and in any case within thirty days of the receipt of the request on payment of fee (person below poverty line is exempted) . Provided that where the information sought for concerns the life or liberty of person(s), the same must be provided within 48 hours of receipt of the request.
6) If the information relates to a third party, then there is a provision for an extra 10 days for contacting the third party and taking his say in the matter. Under these circumstances, information must be provided within 40 days of receipt of such application. When the information is being made available to applicant on payment of any further fees, the calculations made to arrive at the amount must be clearly mentioned in the letter written to the applicant. i.e. Per-page photocopying charge, number of pages, fee demanded and postage charges. Similarly, if the applicant wishes to collect the information from the office in person, then he may do so. And if he wishes to receive it by post, then after recovering the postal charges, the information should be sent by post. For calculation of the 30 days permissible period, the period between the date of actual payment by the applicant and the date of request for it, is not counted.
7) If it comes to the notice of the Commission that the PIO has, without any reasonable cause, refused to receive an application for information or has not furnished information within the time specified or mala fidely denied the request for information or knowingly given incorrect, incomplete or misleading information or destroyed information requested or obstructed in furnishing the information, then it shall impose a penalty of Rs 250 each day till RTI application is accepted by PIO or information is furnished. This amount may reach a maximum of Rs 25,000. Of course PIO shall be given a hearing before any penalty is imposed on him. But the responsibility of proving that his actions were justified rests on the PIO. For mistakes committed without any reasonable cause and repeatedly, SIC can also recommend disciplinary action against the PIO under the service rules.
8) The reason for writing all this in detail is that henceforth, it will be considered very important that the PIO should be strictly in accordance with law in giving information. Also, this is to clarify that apart from the PIO, whosoever is required to assist the PIO for giving information can also be prosecuted under this law.
9) Appeal against the PIO’s decision can be filed with the First Appellate Authority within 30 days. FAA should give its decision within 30 days thereafter. I have already brought to your notice the fact of FAA not giving any decisions, or if at all it is giving decisions, giving delayed decisions. And also, I have earlier directed you to give a strict notice to FAAs to follow the time-limits. For the successful implementation of this law, it is important that FAA must be a good senior officer who has concern for society. I am once again stressing that the FAA should pass his appeal order in time.
If PIO is at fault or has been negligent, then FAA should note the same in his order, and he must forward a copy to the Commission, recommending action against the PIO. In this way, every PIO’s work vis-à-vis every RTI application will be evaluated; as a result, effectiveness of the Act will be enhanced. If any disciplinary action has been taken against a PIO, or some punishment has been awarded in a departmental enquiry, this should be noted in the Confidential Report and Service Record.
10 While hearing First Appeal, if PIO has not provided the information, his detailed explanation should be taken note of. If possible, PIO’s explanation in this regard must be conveyed to Appellant three days before the First Appeal Hearing. If this was not possible or if the appellant says that he has not received it, then it should definitely be provided to the appellant at the time of the hearing. The appellant must be given sufficient opportunity to study this explanation, in order to enable him to properly put forward his arguments.
11) In case FAA finds PIO at fault in discharging his duties, then in that regard, the appellant’s original RTI application, his appeal, PIO’s statement and FAA’s say and recommendations, and his decision, should all be sent to the Commission.
12) If PIO and FAA are coming across any obstacles in performing their duties in their department, then the head of the department should make efforts to remove these obstacles.
13) Sometimes, it becomes difficult to understand what information the applicant wants. The PIO should carefully read the application, understand its meaning and try to provide the requested information to the applicant. If he needs clarifications for one or two points, there is nothing wrong if PIO phones the applicant or writes to him, calling him for a discussion. If possible, this action should be taken within five days of receipt of the RTI application. If the application or a part of it is connected with the functions of another public authority, then the application or part of it should be transferred to the concerned PIO within five days, and the applicant should be informed of it immediately.
14) If a particular information is not available, then the applicant must be clearly informed as to information pertaining to which point is not available. If the information required by the applicant is voluminous, then the applicant must definitely be invited for a discussion. Then through discussion and mutual understanding, and by allowing the applicant complete inspection of all the documents, efforts should be made to give him information that relates to his application.
15) Where, in the opinion of the PIO, any of the “information” requested does not fall within the ambit of definition of information, PIO should give detailed reasons for the same. If PIO decides to refuse any of the information requested, then he must clearly specify which sub-section of section 8 or 9 the information is denied.
16) The PIO, while providing the information, must clearly give his name and designation, office phone numbers, fax number etc. to the applicant. Similarly, FAA’s name, designation and complete office address must be specified, along with the number of days within which he may file his appeal.
17) It is necessary for FAA to give a hearing to the appellant. If FAA decides to accept all the points of the appellant, then he need not be called for a hearing. All the FAAs should be made aware that every appellant must be called for a hearing. In the first appeal order, Second Appellate Authority’s name and address must be definitely specified. Also, it should mention within how many days the second appeal must be filed.
18) The prominent points of the law have been mentioned above. Besides these, the other points of the law must also be followed by PIO and FAA. All the officers must be informed that the Information Commission is going to adopt a very strict adherence to the rules as regards the time-limits for providing the information and the quality of information provided.
19) You may please give directives, according to this letter, to all the departments of Mantralaya.
(Suresh V Joshi)
Chief Information Commissioner
Copy for Information to:
12 Shiv Krupa,
Borivli East, Near National Park
Mumbai 400 066.