Dilution of a Landmark Legislation

Nearly a million Right to Information (RTI) applications are filed annually and the proportion of appeals has also increased considerably. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has about 1,233 pending appeals to deal with. The new RTI  rules notified on July 31 not only put a limit of 500 words but also make it mandatory for an appellant to be present in person or send a representative during case hearing by the Centre of Information Commission.
An applicant will have to pay additional postal charges involved in supply of information that exceeds fifty rupees. There will be no fee charged from a person below the poverty line for providing a copy of the certificate issued by the appropriate government in this regard. A new format has been devised for filing an appeal to the Central Information Commission (CIC) under the RTI Act. The appeal filed by an aggrieved person has to be accompanied by  a copy of the application submitted to the Central Public Information Officer,  a copy of reply received, if any, from the CPIO, a copy of the appeal made to the First Appellate Authority (FAA), a copy of the order received, if any, from the FAA, copies of other documents relied upon by the appellant and referred to in his appeal and an index of documents referred to in the appeal. The rules say that an appeal may be returned by the CIC to the appellant, if it is not accompanied by the documents as specified. However, no appeal shall be dismissed only on the ground that it has not been made in the specified format. The appellant may be present in person, through an authorised representative or through video conferencing at the time of hearing of the appeal by the CIC. The Commission shall not consider an appeal unless it is satisfied that the appellant has availed of all the remedies available to him under the Act. The fee can be paid in cash or by demand draft, banker’s cheque, postal order or by electronic means in case such facility is available with the public authority. Online payment of fee can be implemented only after the department of post launches the e-postal order. There is no mention about audio conferencing (telephone call), which was earlier allowed.

“This act is meant even for illiterates, how can you expect people to follow such a tight word limit? Everyone is not capable of summarising thoughts so well.” – Noida-based RTI activist Lokesh Batra

Earlier, the government had proposed new rules that require a Right to Information (RTI) application to be restricted to 250 words and only one subject. There’s no word cap currently, and applicants can seek information on any number of subjects in a single application.
The 250 words would  not include addresses of the Central Public Information Officer and the applicant. The proposed rules required the applicant to pay postal charges above Rs 10 incurred by authorities in replying to the application. Applicants do not currently pay postal charges. They pay Rs 10 when filing the application.
The new rule allows the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO ) not to be present during hearing and instead allows the public authority to depute a representative or another official. RTI activists feel that the amendments would only lead to delay in getting information. Rules in the Right to Information (RTI) Act that have been just notified by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) might end up diluting the Act, said RTI activist Gopalakrishnan.
On the proposal to allow the public authority to depute a representative for the hearing,  Gopalakrishnan said, “This amendment will result in lawyers who can represent the CPIOs at taxpayers cost or a junior official being deputed by the public authority, contravening the Act.”
Gopalakrishnan said that the 500-word limit mentioned in the notification needs more clarity. “It is clearly mentioned in the notification that one cannot reject an RTI application for crossing the 500-word limit. However, the CPIO will make use of the provision to delay providing the information,” he said.
Gopalakrishnan questioned the need for a format for filing an appeal before the CIC when there was no such format for filing an RTI application. The consensus among RTI activists was that the new rules will dilute the landmark legislation.
“By restricting the application to a word limit the government will make it difficult for the common man to seek information,” said Noida-based RTI activist Lokesh Batra. “This act is meant even for illiterates, how can you expect people to follow such a tight word limit? Everyone is not capable of summarising thoughts so well.”
Delhi-based Anil Sood said the proposal was a “clear attempt to create grey areas in a transparent law and allow scope for harassment of applicants”.
‘The recently notified rules for the Right to Information Act have made filing applications more difficult and defeat the basic spirit of the transparency of the legislation’, was the comment made by National Advisory Council member Aruna Roy. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has uploaded a 10-page draft of the Right to Information Rules, 2010, on its website and has invited comments from the public by December 27, which is a procedural requirement before the rules can be enforced. Comments are invited to usrti-dopt@nic.in.

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