CPIOs cannot escape responsibility by transferring RTIs: Delhi HC

An official handling Right to Information application cannot "escape" his responsibility of answering queries by simply forwarding the application to other officials, the Delhi High Court has ruled upholding the penalty levied by the CIC on a railway officer.

PTI| Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 19:54 PM IST

New Delhi: An official handling Right to Information application cannot "escape" his responsibility of answering queries by simply forwarding the application to other officials, the Delhi High Court has ruled upholding the penalty levied by the CIC on a railway officer.

Upholding the maximum penalty of Rs 25,000 levied by the Central Information Commission on a railway officer, Justice Vibhu Bakhru said, "Section 6(3) of the Act cannot be read to mean that the responsibility of a CPIO is only limited to forwarding the application to different department/offices."

The High Court said forwarding an application by a public authority to another public authority is not the same as a public information officer of a public authority arranging or sourcing information from within the organisation.

According to the Section 6(3) of RTI Act, if a CPIO receives an application the subject matter of which is more closely related to another public authority, he must transfer the application or the portion of it to the concerned authority within five days of receiving the application.

However, when the matter is concerning their own public authority, CPIOs can seek help of fellow officers under Section 5(4) of the RTI Act. The law mandates the officer, whose assistance has been sought by the CPIO, to render all the assistance.

The case relates to an RTI application filed by one Girish Mittal who sought some information from the railways but it was not furnished within mandated 30 days. When Mittal filed a complaint with the CIC, his application was transferred to RDSO by the concerned CPIO.

Finding the CPIO liable for not responding to the RTI application and not complying with its orders, CIC had slapped the maximum penalty of Rs 25,000 on the CPIO which was challenged by the railways before the Delhi High Court.According to the Act, the penalty is levied on a CPIO in his or her personal capacity. However, railways challenged the penalty levied by the CIC on its CPIO before the High Court through a writ petition.

In the defence of its CPIO, the railway claimed that the officer has forwarded the application to various other officers for furnishing the information and by virtue of the Section 6(3) of the Act, he was not required to do no more.

"The reliance placed by the learned counsel for the petitioner on the provisions of Section 6(3) of the Act is clearly misplaced in the facts and circumstances of the case," Justice Bakhru said in his order.

Upholding the penalty, he said, "this is not a case where penalty has been imposed with respect to queries which have been referred to another public authority but with respect to queries that were to be addressed by the public authority of which Petitioner no 2 is a Public Information Officer."

The High Court also rejected the contention of the railways that CIC had no jurisdiction to levy a penalty in a complaint proceeding in which the petitioner had approached it directly surpassing the first appellate authority in the department from where information was sought.

"Plainly, Section 18 of the Act enjoins the CIC to inter alia inquire into a complaint from any person who has been refused access to any information requested under the Act. In view of the unambiguous language of the provisions of the Act, the contention that CIC lacks the jurisdiction to impose a penalty on a complaint is ex facie without merit," it said.

The order said the plain language of Section 20(1) of the Act indicates that it is not necessary that the penalty can be imposed by the CIC only while considering an appeal.

"...Penalty can also be imposed by the CIC if on inquiry made pursuant to a complaint, it is found that a CPIO has not furnished the information in time or has knowingly given incorrect or incomplete information. Therefore, in my view, the jurisdiction exercised by CIC cannot be faulted," Justice Bakhru said.