Bhopal: The Right to Information (RTI) is meant to be an empowering tool in the hands of common citizens to usher in transparency in government functioning. But public information officers in Madhya Pradesh have found bizarre ways to deny information to RTI applicants.
RTI activists say the stalling techniques range from simple non-reply within the mandatory 30-day period to sending blank or illegible documents to the applicants.
Retired Professor TP Tiwari from Sirmaur is one such aggrieved applicant. Tiwari had moved an application under RTI seeking details of appointments made in Govt Janta College, Rewa by the then principal in 1995. Tiwari said that the public information officer did not offer any reply. When the same continued for two years, Tiwari said the State Information Commission (SIC) levied a penalty of Rs 10,000 on the officer and ensured that the professor received the information he sought. However, the officer not only denied the information again, but also forged the applicant’s signature to falsely declare that he no longer needed the information. A subsequent probe by the police proved that the officer had forged the signature.
RK Jha, assistant professor of Economics posted at Singrauli in 2016, went through a similar ordeal. Jha had sought details of the educational qualification of acting principal of Govt College Devsar, KP Pandey. In the capacity of public information officer, Pandey avoided sharing the information and after two appeals and three reminders from Additional Director of School Education, Jha was forced to move the State Information Commission. The commission directed Pandey to provide the information.
Instead of revealing the complete details, Pandey reportedly sent a registered post to Jha, offering a covering letter which claimed that the envelope contained 84 certified pages. He was, however, caught in his own lie as the post weighed only 100g as against 370g and charged only Rs 46. The SIC then levied a fine of Rs 25,000 on Pandey and issued the information through Additional Director, appointing him as the public information officer. Further probe by Jha revealed that Pandey’s graduation degree was fake. “Still no action has been taken and the principal retires on December 31 this year,” said Jha.
In some cases, officials have handed over incomplete information or unreadable documents to RTI applicants. An applicant was recently offered information on a paper that was partially torn, making it difficult to understand the meaning.
In some instances, the public information officers decline to accept postal applications. In such a case recently, the information commissioners have asked the officer to prove that he wasn’t present when the post was delivered at his office. On occasion, the officials get the money deposited for certain number of copies, but later offer fewer copies. The act, however, has no provision to refund the money. In such cases, the SIC orders compensation to the applicants to make up for their loss.
Social activist Rolly Shivhare says the most common reply to an RTI query is that “the department concerned does not compile such information”. Shivhare added that in certain cases, partial information is provided with officials claiming that the rest is not available with them. Information also loses relevance if one receives it after several years, she said.
RTI activist Ajay Patidar agrees. He says officials usually reply that the information sough is of vast nature and that it could take time to compile the details. The reply is never received afterwards, alleges Patidar. He recounted an instance when the BRTS branch of the municipal corporation offered him a reply with documents weighing 7kg, but turns out it contained information that was never sought by Patidar.
Vyapam scam whistleblower Ashish Chaturevedi says such disobedience to the RTI law is rampant. Under police protection for exposing the scam, Chaturvedi was video-graphed by the police for a while in 2017. The activist then filed an RTI asking on whose orders he was video-graphed and sought the footage in a CD, but is yet to receive a reply.
Recently, Bhopal-based Narayan Das Adwani had sought information from the Seed Certification Department, Rewa on four points. The department and commissioner officer reported that the concerned file was missing.
Speaking to News18, Information Commissioner Rahul Singh said he has served notices to both the authorities, and has asked them to furnish details of what they did after the files went missing. “I have also asked the authorities to fix responsibility for the missing files and initiated enquiry against staffers concerned,” he added.
Singh also admitted that denial of information citing banal reasons is quite high in the state, but added that show-cause notices are issued in such cases and penalty is levied on the officials concerned. The applicants are also ensured compensation in case the denial of information seems unjust, he added.