The Central Information Commission (CIC) has come down heavily on the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), a nodal agency for implementing the RTI Act, for stonewalling an application filed by noted RTI activist Commodore Lokesh K. Batra (Retd) pertaining to the appointment of the Information Commissioners at the CIC.
Batra’s application was turned down, citing Section 8(1)(i) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), which exempts certain types of information from disclosure.
Section 8 (1)(i) of the RTI Act reads as follows-
8 (1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,
(i) cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers: Provided that the decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over: Provided further that those matters which come under the exemptions specified in this section shall not be disclosed
Batra told the CIC that despite being the nodal agency for implementing the provisions of RTI Act, the DoPT’s use of the exemption clause under Section 8 was akin to stonewalling RTI applications.
He expressed anguish with the alleged regressive approach adopted by the DoPT over the years with respect to the disclosure of information and said he believed it had been departing from the principle of ensuring probity and transparency in its functioning by arbitrarily denying even such information that was obviously meant for public consumption.
During the hearing of the appeal filed by Batra, the CIC on July 2, 2019, inquired from the representative of the CPIO to justify the denial of information under Section 8(1)(i) of RTI Act. No explanation was, however, forthcoming.
The CIC then adverted to the written submission of June 25, 2019 sent by Sanjay Kumar, Under Secretary & CPIO, stating that the information was denied by the then CPIO (Preeti Khanna, Under Secretary & CPIO) as the process of appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioner was underway at the time.
The documents sought by Batra were to be submitted to the Search Committee (Committee of Secretaries) and subsequently, it was to be submitted to the Committee chaired by the Prime Minister consisting of Leader of Opposition and a Union Cabinet Minister. Given that the appointment process was on, the department felt it would not be conducive to releasing the information. They submitted that this was the practice that was followed with regard to other equivalent high-level appointments of the government as well.
Incoherent and evasive response; unwarranted opacity
Information Commissioner Divya Prakash Sinha who heard the plea accepted the complainant’s argument that the denial of information under Section 8(1)(i) of RTI Act was completely inappropriate.
“The then CPIO had invoked the said exemption clause on the mere premise that the process of appointment is ‘under process’, while the present CPIO had endorsed the reason cited by the then CPIO, further submissions of the CPIO reproduced verbatim above appear incoherent and does not convey any substantial justification for invoking Section 8(1)(i) of RTI Act”, the Information Commissioner said in his order.
The CIC then went on to admonish the CPIO noting that the conduct of the then CPIO as well as the present CPIO smacked of sheer evasiveness and non-application of mind in dealing with the application.
Batra’s has rightly pointed out that such mindless application of exemptions of RTI Act to deny information by the CPIO(s) of DoPT casts serious aspersions on the commitment of the nodal agency of RTI to the tenets of probity and transparency, the Information Commissioner asserted.
“It is ironic even further that the information that has been denied in the instant case pertained to the appointment of Information Commissioners under the RTI Act, who are ordained with the statutory authority of securing the regime of transparency.
“Although, the strength of material on record does not warrant ascribing a malafide intention on the part of the then CPIO for having denied the information but the allegation of the Complainant that this kind of conduct amounts to stonewalling RTI Applications and stifling the very letter and spirit of RTI Act weighs in,” the CIC said.
By resorting to “unwarranted opacity”, the commission pointed out that DoPT was setting a bad example for other public authorities and was at the same time discrediting its own position as the nodal agency for implementation of RTI Act.
It went on to admonish the then CPIO for invoking Section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act without assessing its applicability while at the same time warning the present CPIO against mindlessly endorsing the reply of the then CPIO.
CIC also ordered that copy of its order to be sent to Secretary, DoPT to take note of the adverse findings of the Commission.