Intent can be reason for denying information to applicant
In a move that is clearly against the letter and spirit of Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly will now consider an applicant’s intent before providing information. The Assembly could even reject the application if it is convinced that it has been made with mala fide intent. This clearly goes against the Act, which says that an applicant requesting for information shall not be required to give any reason.
The Assembly, which had issued a notification to this effect last month, also hiked the fee for an RTI application from Rs 10 to Rs 500. Besides, the applicant will have to pay Rs 15 per copy of any document instead of the standard fee of Rs 2 charged across the country.
Devendra Verma, Secretary, Legislative Assembly, explains, “Earlier, there were no (specific) rules for the Legislative Assembly. While framing rules, we adopted from Uttar Pradesh”. The intent clause has been derived, he says, from the Preamble of the RTI Act.
Dharam Lal Kaushik, Speaker of the house, defends the notification saying that information regarding questions raised by Assembly members is still provided at Rs 1 per copy. Higher fee would apply only to information sought about the Assembly, he says.
Activists who have fought a long battle for introduction of the RTI Act are appalled. “Imagine a person who buys a kilo of ration for Rs 5 per kg. He/she will have to sacrifice the budget for 100 kg of ration to just file an RTI application. It goes against the spirit of the Act,” says Shekhar Singh, whose NGO National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) has been instrumental in introducing the RTI Act. The NGO, which has termed the fee hike arbitrary and harsh, will issue a press note on the matter.
Shailesh Gandhi, Central Information Commissioner, couldn’t agree more. “Bad practices set precedents easily. This is disappointing. The intent clause is disrespectful of the law. The RTI Act mentions a reasonable fee and Rs 500 is not reasonable. These (legislative) bodies just don’t want to provide information,” he told TEHELKA. Gandhi has even shot off letters to the Chief Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Speaker asking them to maintain the earlier fee amounts.
This is not the first time that such a step has been initiated in the state. In 2009, the government limited the word count to 150 and number of subjects to one for every RTI application. The ‘one subject per application’ rule in turn was adopted by the Madhya Pradesh Assembly in 2010.
Nikhil Dey of NCPRI says that “restricting the subject to just one is illegal as the RTI Act clearly provides for even partial transfer of application to other public authorities if all the information is not available with one department”.
Prateek Pandey, RTI activist from Chhattisgarh Citizen Initiative, recalls his experience. “Once, I asked the ex-State Information Commissioner (SIC) to define ‘subject’ and he just smiled. If the SIC can’t answer that, how will a Public Information Officer? Everyone interprets it in his own way,” he says.
The Chhattisgarh Assembly has been feeling the heat of several RTI applications of late. An Information Commissioner of the state recently had ruled against the “Speaker’s privilege” to deny information in the case of an applicant seeking audit reports of accounts of the house and RTI applications received by it. Many legislators have also been in line of fire due to information obtained under RTI applications last year which revealed them receiving gifts like microwave ovens, washing machines, etc. bought in violation of rules by various state departments.
The way ahead is either to accept the Assembly’s decision or resort to legal means. According to Singh, confrontation can be avoided. He gives the example of Manipur, which had taken a similar decision on RTI applications. However, when activists wrote to the government expressing concerns, the application fee was reduced.
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