Info under RTI within 30 days difficult to come by

Even four years after the Right to Information Act was enacted, getting information within 30 days as mandated under the law is not an easy task.

New Delhi: Even four years after the Right to Information Act was enacted, getting information within 30 days as mandated under the law is not an easy task.

A news agency filed 20 applications in a span of five months between November 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010 with different Union ministries and organisations.

Surprisingly, no department provided complete information within 30 day limit mandated under the Act. In three cases, applications were rejected within a month along with exemption clauses given under the transparency law.

Nine applications did not receive any reply in a month and the concerned Central Public Information Officers replied much after the mandatory period was over.

In the remaining eight cases, the CPIOs either transferred the application or sent incomplete responses. In four of these information was provided after the intervention
of higher authorities.

The most brazen response was of sports ministry CPIO who rejected two applications dated November 23 seeking details of travel expenses and expenditure incurred on snacks served during the meetings for preparations of Commonwealth Games.

The information was only provided after instructions of higher authorities. The application regarding travel expenses was replied on March 12 while that on snacks was replied after five months on April 7.

An RTI application dated March 24 directed to organising committee of Commonwealth Games is yet to be answered by the committee.

One of the CPIOs of Rural Development Ministry claimed that application on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act dated March 9 was received by him only after 21 days which he replied on April 23.

A person, under the RTI Act, can apply before a designated Central Public Information Officer of a government department, who is generally a director level officer in
central ministries, with a fee of Rs 10.

The CPIO is mandated to provide requisite information, if it does not come under the exemption clauses of the act, as expeditiously as possible and within 30 days of receiving it.

In case information is incomplete or not provide, first appeal
can be filed in the department with higher official who are
designated at First Appellate Authority.

The list of such officials generally remains on the web
site of the central ministries.

The Central Information Commission has already made it
clear that "information has to be provided within 30 days and
that there is no provision of excluding holidays and weekends
from the mandatory period."

If an official does not provide information to an
applicant within 30 days, he or she may be fined at the rate
of Rs 250 per day from the time the information became due to
the time it was provided subject to maximum of Rs 25,000.

Leading RTI activist and Magsaysay award winner Arvind
Kejariwal agreed that people were not able to get the
information within 30 days as mandated under the law.

"The reason is that Information Commissioners are not
penalising erring CPIOs. RTI Act was the first law in the
country which had provisions of the slapping penalty on a
government official, if he or she did not perform their
duties," he said.

Kejariwal said immediately after the act was implemented
officials were scared of being penalised but now they are
taking it for granted as they know penalties are rare.

"The CPIOs are misinterpreting the Act itself. The Act
says information should be `as expeditiously as possible, and
in any case within thirty days` but they start sending
information only on 30th day which is the maximum limit," said
Commodore (retd) Lokesh Batra, another RTI activist.

Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi agrees that
information flow is often tardy but cites practical
difficulties in imposing penalties.

"We have found that in many cases, CPIOs transfer the
application within department as soon as it lands with them to
shrug off responsibility. It becomes a chain and holding an
official responsible for the delay becomes difficult to
pin-point and this is just one of the reasons," he said.

The Act says that if the CPIO is not in the possession
of the information sought by the RTI applicant, he can
transfer the file to another official. Only one transfer is
allowed under the Act which should be done in five days of
receiving the application.

The repeated transfers from one official to another
negates the very purpose of the RTI Act, he says.

Gandhi who is in-charge of hearing cases related to
Delhi government has written to Chief Secretary of the Delhi
government to ensure that provisions of the act regarding
transfer of applications should be strictly adhered to.