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Why surgical strike necessary to prevent misuse of RTI Act?

'Right-To-Information (RTI) Act' introduced in the country in the year 2005 is one such legislation passed by Parliament of world's largest democracy, that bypassed all other Acts in terms of fast-gained popularity.

Presently ranked fourth best of such transparency Acts in the world, Indian RTI Act is virtually best in the global world because first three best-ranked such Acts are there in countries which have quite less population. RTI Act of India in such circumstances if is considered fourth best of such legislations in the world, then it is practically the best considering the fact that India with a population of 125 crores is a vast country with world's second largest populated countries in the world. However experiences with RTI Act as observed in its small journey of eleven years in the country does lead to think for refining it with some suitable modifications so as to prevent its misuse. Perhaps then this Act which has already been taken to be a role-model by neighbouring countries for drafting the own such Acts may be ranked as top-most in the world. Modification and refining should be a regular on-going process, and it should be so even for RTI Act in India.

India is gifted with brilliant-most minds, with many such minds engaged even by world's oldest democracy USA which also happens to be a virtual global leader. But negative side is that many in India misuse brilliance of their minds for negative deeds also. Nobody can forget a curious case of one Natwarlal whose notoriety for 'using' his otherwise creative mind, made him rather famous for various innovative ideas of cheating! Likewise many miscreants have started misusing RTI Act in India. Cases of misuse of every Act in India including Dowry Act or the one legislated after infamous 16/12 Nirbhaya episode are regularly surfacing like also for misuse of RTI Act. But that does not mean that all Acts may be repealed and world's largest democracy may be turned into a lawless banana republic. What we need is to modify provisions under RTI Act so as to prevent its misuse.

NGOs and civil-society opposed to reform for checking misuse of RTI Act

Several Non-Government-Organisations (NGOs) and members of civil-society are against steps to tackle misuse of RTI Act because according to them, percentage of such misuse is totally insignificant as per their study made by them! It is not known how they have made the study. Rather my strong advocacy for taking some serious steps to prevent misuse of RTI Act has unfortunately made me isolated by some of civil-society-groups from RTI-movement carried out by them. Since I have been conducting RTI workshops in a regular manner also for public-authorities (apart from at universities and colleges where I educate about importance of RTI Act and properly drafting RTI petitions), I have a practical feedback about the grim situation of large-scale misuse of RTI Act faced by public-authorities. Since no quantum of training for handling RTI petitions can be sufficient to such large number of PIOs/public-authorities and others handing RTI petitions, effective ways to check misuse of RTI Act are necessary to be evolved, which may ultimately be beneficial for genuine RTI-applicants. Interestingly an important member of civil-society group who was a bitter critic of my facebook-post on misuse of RTI Act, himself became the critic when he himself faced the brunt of fake RTI application filed in his name!

Even Information Commissioners confused on quantum of misuse of RTI Act

Some Information Commissioners also endorsed that they noted just 5-7 percent cases of misuse are detected by them. But it is important to note that very few out of total RTI applications bombarded at so many public-authorities in the country both at central and state level, reach to stage of second appeal at Information Commissions. Therefore observations of Information Commissioners can just be based on cases of misuse of RTI Act brought before them through second appeals filed at respective Information Commissions. Evidently Information Commissioners are in no way aware of misuse of the sunshine Act at grass-root level of public-authorities. 

Supreme Court observations on man-hours spent on disposing RTI applications

Observations of the Hon'ble Supreme Court carried out in para 37 of its important verdict dated 09.08.2011 by Justices RV Raveendran and AK Patnaik in the matter 'Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) vs Aditya Bandopadhyaya' (Civil Appeal number 6454 of 2011 arising out of SLP(C) 7526 of 2009) are important:

"......Indiscriminate and impractical demands or directions under RTI Act for disclosure of all and sundry information (unrelated to transparency and accountability in the functioning of public authorities and eradication of corruption) would be counter-productive as it will adversely affect the efficiency of the administration and result in the executive getting bogged down with the non-productive work of collecting and furnishing information. The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquility and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty. The nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties. The threat of penalties under the RTI Act and the pressure of the authorities under the RTI Act should not lead to employees of a public authorities prioritising `information furnishing', at the cost of their normal and regular duties."

Some peculiar cases of misuse of RTI Act by applicants

One person used to file about one hundred RTI-applications per week at Delhi Fire Service, evidently for mischievous objectives. But a proper training provided to their officers arming them with the above quoted Supreme Court verdict resulted in preventing him playing mischief with the RTI Act. Delhi High Court in WP(C) 406/2016 gave a significant judgement dated 19.01.2016 imposing fine of rupees 25000 on a petitioner having challenged a CIC-verdict dated 30.10.2015 clubbing thirteen petitions.

A person based in a prominent city of South India has been filing RTI petitions of nuisance nature in name of his friends/relations based in different cities of the country. Format and style of drafting RTI petitions with one or two simple but nuisance queries is same. Numbers of all the postal-orders filed towards RTI fees are in a serial-order, and all these postal-orders are purchased on the same date from the same post-office. All RTI petitions are sent from a particular post-office even though filed in names of persons residing in cities scattered throughout the country. All RTI petitions filed in name of different persons from different cities bear the same signature signed by the same pen! But since there is no provision of asking for an Identity Proof of RTI applicant, concerned public-authority facing such RTI petitions can do nothing but wasting precious man-hours, resources, postal and stationery costs in dealing with such RTI petitions.

Many persons including mainly from those involved in yellow journalism file complaints at times anonymous against government employees with dozens of copies marked to number of authorities like including President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India, Governor/Lt Governor, Chief Minister, Central Vigilance Commissioner, Police Commissioner....etc thus unnecessarily burdening the system with complaints at times non-genuine. It is also experienced that certain mischievous persons even misuse name of known activists by sending such complaints under their names with forged signatures, which causes unnecessary embarrassments to those whose names are misused for sending such complaints. The matter was taken with all seriousness even in CIC-verdict dated 10.11.2016 in petition-number CIC/SA/C/2016/00324. Even a targeted government officer in a fake complaint threatened to file suit for damages against the person whose name was misused to send such unverified complaints.

CVC directive to CVOs on misuse of RTI Act

It is significant that even Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has circulated a circular-number 03/03/2017 dated 10.03.2017 to all the Chief Vigilance Officers (CVOs) of various public-authorities about a very important CIC-verdict dated 25.06.2014 in case-number CIC/AD/A/2013/001326-SA in the case of Shri Ramesh Chand Jain vs Delhi Transport Corporation in which CVC has asked all its CVOs to bring to notice of CPIOs/Appellate Authorities of their organisations. After all CVC had to issue such directions to CVOs only because of detection of large-scale misuse of RTI Act having been noted by it. The said CIC-verdict had observations as under:  

"The Commission noticed that several applicants seek some information from one wing of the public authority, and based on the responses file a bunch of RTI questions from the same or other wings of same public authority, or from other authority. This will have a continuous harassing effect on the public authority. As the PIOs go on answering, more and more questions are generated out of the same and in the: same proportion the number of repeated first appeals and second appeals will be growing."The Commission after considering various aspects of the issue and the provisions of acts of similar nature in other countries, and also the decisions of earlier Information Commissioners has concluded that:

(i)     Evena single repetition of RTI application would demand the valuable time of the public authority, first appellate authority and if it also reaches second appeal, that of the Commission, which time could have been spent to hear another appeal or answer another application or perform other public duty.

(ii)   Every repetition of RTI application which was earlier responded will he an obstruction to flow of information and defeats the purpose of the RTI Act."

The Central Information Commission, vide its decision No. CIC/AD/A/2013/001326-SA dated 25.06.2014 has thus, decided that:

"(i) No scope of repeating under RTI Act.

(ii) Citizen has no Right to Repeat.

(iii) Repetition shall be ground of refusal.

(iv) Appeals can be rejected"

Information Commissions and DoPT should guide public-authorities through publicised verdicts on misuse of RTI Act

Now there have been many CIC-verdicts passing stringent strictures on misuse of RTI Act, subsequently endorsed by High Courts and may perhaps be by the Apex Court also, Central Information Commission, State information Commissions and Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) should try to compile all such verdicts on their websites as their duty to educate those handling RTI applications at public-authorities, central and states. Putting such verdicts on important websites will make public-authorities utilise these to tackle frivolous and mischievous RTI applications. I recall that a person filing indiscriminate RTI applications sometimes about 50 in a day was prevented from doing so after strong strictures were passed against by Hon'ble Central Information Commission. Another person who got awarded a compensation of rupees one lakh by misleading Hon'ble Central Commission, later himself declared not to approach Central Information Commission after the verdict on being reviewed detected him to be a fraud person.

Abuse of RTI Act by petitioners effectively checked through CIC-verdicts

Central Information Commissioners in several verdicts directed harassed public-authorities for a probe by some appropriate investigating agency in motive behind filing reckless  filing of hundreds (rather thousands) of similar RTI petitions filed simultaneously with many public-authorities repeatedly, involving spent of huge public-resources including man-hours and postal-charges apart from unnecessarily terrorising professionals like doctors in hospitals through such RTI petitions. Hundreds of petitions of alleged non-compliance have been earlier summarily disposed by CIC in a single day at many different dates in the past like on 30.09.2013. Earlier also, the then Chief information Commissioner detected and put on record through his decision dated 26.07.2013 in appeal-numbers CIC/SM/A/2013/000401 & 416 wherein he observed "this Appellant is in habit of filing frivolous RTI applications through the entire appellate mechanism right up to the CIC thereby wasting everybody' time". Since second appeals filed at Central Information Commission also require an undertaking about contents of the petition to be true, study should be made if some criminal action is also possible against such petitioners. CIC-website should prominently publicise such petitioners advising public-authorities for invoking section 7(9) and 8(1) of RTI Act where applicable on petitions filed by such petitioners.

Lack of knowledge at all levels is also evident when none dealing with RTI petition including even the then Chief Information Commissioner having given the verdict cited a gazette-notification dated 31.07.2012 which restricted a word-limit of 500 words in an RTI petition. The then Chief Information Commissioner was also known for giving non-speaking decision-part, sometimes months after the hearing surprisingly with no file-notings on record! It is impossible for any Commissioner to recall proceedings held months before date of decision.

Abuse of RTI Act by public-authorities

Some public-authorities are in habit of misusing section 6(3) of RTI Act by unnecessarily transferring RTI petitions to hundreds/thousands offices even though information might exist with the transferring public-authority itself. For example, various wings of Union Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) in the earlier UPA regime had adopted clever tactics to avoid uncomfortable RTI queries like status of government-bungalow number 6, Krishna Menon Marg (New Delhi), change in bungalow-number to 6-A from 8 at Krishna Menon Marg (New Delhi) etc perhaps because such queries directly related to personalities like the then Lok Sabha Speaker and a former Prime Minister. Even though many queries related only and only to Directorate of Estate, RTI petitions on such subjects used to be deliberately and unnecessarily shunted between hundreds of offices of Central Public Works Department (CPWD) which ultimately closed the file by mentioning that information relating to them as 'Nil'. Such queries could be transferred only to the very much concerned CPWD office/s rather than to all the CPWD offices. CPWD responses usually never carried names and contact-details of CPIOs and Appellate Authorities. CPWD website also never carried such details. Even first appeals filed are at times used to be decided by CPIO himself against basics of legal provisions. First appeals used to be dismissed even overlooking appellant's submission to decide these on merit on basis of written submissions without requiring presence of appellants.

Likewise Income Tax Department (Headquarters) transferred an RTI petition to thousands of Income Tax Offices across the country where information was sought about those Non-Government-Organisations (NGOs) and political parties which are entitled for tax-exemption under Income Tax Act. Most of the Income Tax Offices replied that information relating to them as 'NIL'. Only very few Income Tax Offices gave details of information as available with them. Some others wrongly claimed exemption under various sub-sections of section 8(1) of RTI Act, making petitioner file first and second appeals. A very small fraction of total more than 2000 political parties registered with Election Commission contests elections seriously. Most registered political parties get themselves registered only for tax-exemptions. Likewise recent Intelligence Bureau (IB) report has raised serious concerns on NON-Government-Organisations (NGOs) which mushroom to be one after every 400 citizens. It is in interest of revenue that a centralised data about NGOs and political parties entitled for tax-exemption may be maintained at Income Tax (Headquarters) to be made public on website. Tax-exemptions for not only NGOs and political parties but even to charitable organisations should rather be abolished especially considering large-scale misuse. Extra revenue so generated will be utilised by Union government for larger public good, an aspect much more important than done by political parties, NGOs and charitable organisations. It will rather remove one of several criterion considered by Central Information Commission to declare political parties as public-authorities under RTI Act, an issue of interest to political parties themselves!

Wrong use and misuse of RTI provisions by public-authorities

Section 2(f) of 'Right To Information (RTI) Act' defines 'information' as also including information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force. Government-aided schools managed by private bodies are directly accountable under RTI Act being directly funded by government. Apart from these, there are two categories of private schools in Delhi (and even in other cities). One category is which is directly accountable under RTI Act being indirectly funded or controlled by government. RTI petitions received by Directorate of Education in respect of such schools can be transferred to all such categories under section 6(3) of RTI Act requiring them to directly respond to RTI petitioners. But information in respect of rest of private schools many of which are notorious massive irregularities including for not following rules and norms can be procured under provisions of section 2(f) of RTI Act where it is responsibility of Directorate of Education to first obtain sought information about these schools, and then to provide to RTI petitions. Such category of private schools is not supposed to respond directly to RTI petitions. But since Directorate of Education wrongly transfers RTI petition to such schools under section 6(3) of RTI Act, they are at liberty for not responding to wrongly transferred RTI petitions. Directorate of Education should seek information desired in RTI petitions by itself under section 2(f) of RTI Act and then communicating it to RTI petitioners. RTI workshops should be held by Directorate of Education for educating its officers correct use of RTI provisions to ensure accountability even in private schools.

Four-way strategy to tackle misuse of RTI Act by applicants

1          Increase RTI fees to rupees 50 with copying-charges of first twenty pages included

Misuse of RTI Act can and should be prevented where RTI petitions of only serious nature may be allowed. It can be done by increasing RTI fees uniformly to rupees fifty with provision to provide first twenty copied pages free-of-cost. Petitioners will be getting material worth rupees fifty (present RTI fees of rupees ten plus rupees forty as copying charges for first twenty copied pages) but eliminating those who may be filing RTI petitions without any seriousness just because of negligible RTI fees of just rupees ten. It will in fact turn to be economical in terms of man-hours spent postal-charges for both the public-authorities and genuine RTI applicants and in demanding and remitting copying-charges. Otherwise also, it is illogical to continue with insignificant RTI fees of just rupees ten in last more than one decade when government-fees and other service-costs have since been increased manifolds, that too when RTI fees and copying charges are totally waived for persons below-poverty-line (BPL). However since big contractors file RTI petitions in name of casual labourers of BPL category to get copied documents free-of-cost, provision of free providing of copied documents for people in BPL category can be replaced by offer of inspection of records with copies of documents then provided if information affects the concerned petitioner of BPL category.

2          ID proof should be compulsory with RTI applications

Misuse of filing RTI petitions in name of others or with non-existing persons has also become quite common. Copy of ID proof must be made compulsory to be attached with every RTI petition. It is also otherwise necessary because RTI Act does not permit those ex-Indians who later took nationality of some other country. Baseless arguments are being given against the suggestion that it would disclose identity of the RTI applicants! Identity is already disclosed when an RTI applicant has to give his/her name/address in RTI applications to get a reply. Only thing is to verify the authenticity of given name/address through an ID proof.

Even such a provision of compulsorily attaching copy of ID proof should be there for filing complaints in government-departments to prevent filing complaints in name of others. People send copies of same complaint to a number of authorities like including President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India, Governor/Lt Governor, Chief Minister, Central Vigilance Commissioner, Police Commissioner....etc thus unnecessarily burdening the system with complaints at times non-genuine. Other authorities, with whom copies are marked, may simply file these without burdening the system by unnecessarily processing these. The matter was taken with all seriousness even by Central Information Commission (CIC) in its verdict dated 10.11.2016 in petition-number CIC/SA/C/2016/00324. Even a target government officer in a fake complaint threatened to file suit for damages against the person whose name was misused to send such unverified complaints.

3          Issue RTI stamps

CIC's repeated recommendations for introducing exclusive RTI stamps in several denominations on lines of erstwhile Radio & TV licence-fees stamps should be implemented. Presently most popular mode of remitting RTI fees through postal-orders costs heavily to public-exchequer with handling cost of rupees 39.99 per postal-order as revealed through an RTI response. All public-authorities should be directed to use fast, reliable and economical Speed Post service in cities connected through Speed Post service.

4          Accept RTI applications addressed at central public-authorities at all post-offices which are about 160000

Indian postal-department presently provides facility of receiving post-free RTI applications addressed to central public-authorities at just about 4500 post-offices out of a total of about 160000 post-offices in the country. This facility should be available at all about 160000 post-offices in the country. There can be no operational problem in extending this service at all post-offices of the country, because every posts-office however small it may be, sends a post-bag in the evening to the head post-office. This post-bag apart from other postal-items and currency, also contains articles booked through registered and speed post etc. This post-bag sent from each post-office can easily also contain collected RTI petitions to be delivered post-free addressed at central public-authorities. Providing such a facility will prove to be much more effective and useful than on-line filing of RTI petitions in a country where most people especially in rural India are still not using internet.

If all these four steps are taken in a consolidated manner, then members of public will rather appreciate the move rather than criticising because these will prove to be economical and save man-hours. More importantly, disposals of RTI applications will be much-much faster even at stage of Information Commissions with frivolous petitions being largely eliminated. Huge man-hours and other resources including also stationery, postal-charges in handling mischievous or frivolous RTI-applications account for unnecessary burden on public-exchequers funded by hard-earned money of tax-payers, both at central and state levels. But perhaps government may not prefer taking such useful steps in fear of being targeted as anti-RTI government. However a strong single-party government like presently also exists at centre can be a decisive one to be a practical one. Only recently a public-interest step by a recently formed state-government to reverse a populist measure of abolishing holidays on birth and death anniversaries of eminent personalities got a big applause from public at large. In fact, there is a silent majority of people who bear populist wrong decisions mutely, but react to encourage government when such populist steps are changed to practical steps. Since no quantum of training for handling RTI petitions can be sufficient to such large number of PIOs/public-authorities and others handing RTI petitions, effective ways to check misuse of RTI Act are necessary to be evolved, which may ultimately be beneficial for genuine RTI-applicants.

RTI training-workshops necessary for staff handling RTI applications

Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) should arrange massive training-programmes by experts for handling RTI petitions to avoid wastage of man-hours of public-authorities in handling RTI petitions of frivolous vexatious and nuisance nature, and providing proper replies to genuine RTI petitions where some public-authorities are known for abuse of RTI Act by misuse of section 6(3) of RTI Act in transferring an RTI petition uselessly to hundreds/thousands of departments. Problem can be further tackled by raising RTI fess to rupees fifty which may include cost of first twenty copied pages thus giving material worth rupees fifty even in the increased fees. It will not only discourage tendency to file useless RTI petitions, but also largely save man-hours and postage both for public-authorities and the petitioner. Compilation of subject-wise DoPT circulars on RTI should be a regular feature like was once done in the year 2013, with provision of auto-update each time on addition of a new circular. Lack of knowledge at all levels is also evident when very few dealing with RTI petition are aware of 500-word limit in an RTI-petition imposed through gazette-notification dated 31.07.2012.

RTI should strengthen administrative structure rather than being a burden

Preventing misuse of RTI Act is of utmost national importance so that the transparency Act may become a tool to strengthen administrative structure by really inducing accountability and transparency in system, rather than weakening it by being burden on public-resources through handing of mischievous, frivolous, fake and vexatious petitions being presently filed in plenty only because of negligible RTI fees of rupees ten fixed more than a decade ago that too with no requirement of any ID proof required to be submitted with RTI applications. It is to be investigated if the bodies advocating for not taking steps to prevent misuse are doing so because of their being funded by foreign agencies.