New Delhi: Last month, three senior bureaucrats in Chandigarh were rudely reminded that information is money.
The three, all joint secretaries in the Union territory’s government, were asked by the Central Information Commission (CIC), the Union government body responsible for monitoring the Right To Information (RTI) Act, to together ante up Rs25,000.
A joint secretary is the second highest level in India’s bureaucracy. Even the country’s apex investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, needs permission from the ministry concerned before it can launch an investigation against officers at this level.
The crime in this case: the three officers had not provided the information sought by a citizen under the Act.
The chain of events leading up to the fine began with Mehar Singh, a resident of Chandigarh, seeking information from the Union territory’s home department using the provisions of the RTI Act. When Singh did not receive the information within 30 days as mandated by the Act, he approached the CIC. The commission asked the concerned principal information officer—all government departments have information officers to which RTI applications are made; only when they are not answered do the applicants approach the CIC—Satya Thakur to pay a fine of Rs25,000 for the delay.
Thakur responded with a detailed report on the movement of the applicant’s request through the department and said that although she had written to the senior officers concerned for the information several times, they had not responded in time. The CIC then asked the three senior officers from the home department and the finance department to share the fine of Rs25,000 between themselves.
The CIC’s fine, levied on such senior officers, seems to have had the desired effect. “The (Mehar Singh) case is a reminder that all departments need to make their RTI systems more efficient,” says one of the officers who was fined and does not wish to be identified. Eventually, the three joint secretaries apologized to CIC and were spared the fine.
Not everyone has been as lucky. The commission has thus far penalized around 40 information officers for not having provided information on time to RTI applicants. An information officer with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the Capital’s urban development agency, says that imposing such fines on information officers was not fair. “There are so many applications under which people ask for all sorts of general information which requires coordination among all the wings of the DDA. After all, how much of manpower can we use to dig up old files?” asks the officer, who did not wish to be identified.
The officer adds that each of the designated 50 information officers at DDA are handling between five and 10 RTI applications a day. “In fact, many advocates have started a business of filing RTI applications on behalf of citizens against the DDA and MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi),” says the officer.
He suggests that the Rs10 fee to be paid with RTI applications needs to be raised to ensure that only serious applicants lined up. However, an RTI activist says the CIC has not penalized enough officers to ensure that they routinely send information on time.
“There have been over 4,000 cases filed with the CIC and it has imposed fines in less than 40 cases,” says Arvind Kejriwal of non-governmental organization Parivartan. Kejriwal won the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2006 for his work in the RTI area. He adds that the CIC is not doing enough to ensure that bureaucrats treat RTI applications with respect.
Fines cannot be imposed “left, right and centre,” says a senior official at the CIC who did not wish to be identified. He adds that the RTI Act itself is new and that the CIC needs to only “gradually start using all provisions of the Act” (such as fines) so that “the system also is able to accommodate the needs of a burgeoning number of applicants.”