As The Leaflet begins its “Know Your Rights” series — a slew of explanatory write-ups on our crucial rights, significant laws on sexual harassment at work, domestic violence, access to medicine, health, non-discrimination and affirmative action based on sexuality, caste, religion, etc., — I shall be writing every week on the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. I will be explaining, threadbare, the people’s right to know, RTI’s applicability, its contours, impact and will be commenting on various related aspects of this extremely important piece of legislation, especially its undeniably paramount role in shaping an informed citizenry.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 was enacted by the Parliament 13 years ago, yet there is lack of awareness among masses about its use. How to file an RTI application? Is there any specific format for filing an RTI application? What kind of information/documents can be sought from government offices? What if information is not provided by the Public Information Officer (PIO), and so on — are routine but genuine questions asked for by the people who are not familiar with the Act.
Having noticed this huge lacuna in the general public’s understanding and awareness of the RTI Act, The Leaflet will be running a weekly column on it, in an attempt to make Indian citizens more aware about the myriad uses of the Act, thereby encouraging its wider application in holding various government departments accountable and transparent in their functioning as well as decision-making process. The Leaflet will also be attending to queries from readers, and would try its best to respond to as many of them.
This is the first of a multi-part column series on the RTI Act, and naturally, has an introductory objective.
When was RTI legislated?
The RTI Act, was enacted by the both houses of Parliament in May 2005 and received the assent of the President on June 15, 2005. RTI became fully operational after 120 days of its enactment, that is, on October 12, 2005. With the enactment of the RTI Act, 2005, all citizens of India have been given the right to access information from public authorities. The Act aims to “provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.
The Act has a total of six chapters, namely: ‘Preliminary’, ‘Right to Information and Obligation of Public Authorities’, ‘The Central Information Commission, ‘The State Information Commission’, ‘Power and Function of the Information Commission, Appeals and Penalties’, and ‘Miscellaneous’.
The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which is a nodal ministry for the implementation of the RTI Act, 2005, has come out with a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) regarding RTI. For the convenience of the readers, the same are reproduced here with some additions and modifications:
What does “information” mean?
Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, 2005 defines information as follows:
Information is any material in any form. It includes records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form. It also includes information relating to any private body which can be accessed by the public authority under any law for the time being in force.
The above definition of the term “information” led us to the definition of what “public authority” means that has obligation to provide information.
The answer lies in Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005 that defines the term “public authority” as follows:
“public authority” means any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted—
(a) by or under the Constitution; [for example, the President, Governors, Parliament, etc]
(b) by any other law made by Parliament; [for example, the Reserve Bank of India, Central Universities, etc]
(c) by any other law made by State Legislature; [State Universities, State Commissions, etc]
(d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government, and includes any—
(i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed; [such as public schools, government-aided schools, government hospitals, state public health societies, etc]
(ii) non-Government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government;
A plain reading of the definition of “public authority” would indicate that any authority or body or institution of self-government constituted under the Constitution, law made by Parliament, law made by the State Legislature, by a notification issued by the government — are public authorities, that includes any body owned, controlled or substantially financed by the appropriate government, that may be central government or the state government, whatever may be the case. NGOs substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government, are also subject to the RTI Act, 2005.
It may be noted that there has been a controversy with regard to body owned, controlled or substantially financed to be the public authority. The terms substantially financed, extent of control, have been a matter of contentious interpretation by the various courts.
Who can apply? Who will give information?
Now, the question is who can apply for the information under the RTI Act and what is the method of seeking information?
Only the citizens of India are entitled to access information under the RTI Act. NRIs or non-resident Indians are also eligible to seek information under the Act. There is no prescribed format of application for seeking information. The application can be made on plain paper. The application should, however, have the name and complete postal address of the applicant.
A citizen who desires to obtain any information under the Act, should make an application to the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the concerned public authority in writing in English or Hindi or in the official language of the area in which the application is made. S/he should make payment of application fee at the time of submitting the application as prescribed in the Fee Rules.
Note: Every government has prescribed its own fee rules under the RTI Act, 2005. Insofar as Central government is concerned, Rs 10 is the standard RTI application fee. A person who desires to seek some information from a Central Government Public Authority is required to send, along with the application, a demand draft or a banker’s cheque or an Indian Postal Order of Rs 10 (Rupees Ten), payable to the Accounts Officer of the public authority as fee prescribed for seeking information. The payment of fee can also be made by way of cash to the Accounts Officer of the public authority or to the Assistant Public Information Officer against proper receipt.
If the applicant belongs to below poverty line (BPL) category, he is not required to pay any fee. However, he should submit a proof in support of his claim to belong to the below poverty line.
Who is responsible for providing information under the RTI Act?
Public authorities have designated some of its officers as Public Information Officer (PIO). They are responsible to give information to a person who seeks information under the RTI Act.
Should the applicant give a reason for seeking information?
A very important aspect of seeking the information is whether the RTI applicant is required to give any reason for seeking information. The answer is a big NO. Any applicant who wishes to seek information from the public authority is not required to give reasons for seeking information. [See section 6(2) of the RTI Act].
What if a citizen is not able to write an application seeking information? Is there any remedy provided under the Act for the same?
The answer is YES. If a person is unable to make a request in writing, s/he may seek the help of the Public Information Officer to write his/her application and the Public Information Officer should render him/her reasonable assistance. Where a decision is taken to give access to a sensorily-disabled person to any document, the Public Information Officer, shall provide such assistance to the person as may be appropriate for inspection.
What is the time period for supply of information?
In normal course, information to an applicant should be supplied within 30 days from the receipt of application by the public authority. If information sought concerns the life or liberty of a person, it should be supplied within 48 hours. In case the application is sent through the Assistant Public Information Officer, or is sent to a wrong public authority, five days shall be added to the period of 30 days or 48 hours, as the case may be.
Is there any provision for exemption from Disclosure of Information?
Sub-section (1) of Section 8 and Section 9 of the Act enumerate the types of information which is exempt from disclosure. Sub-section (2) of section 8, however, provides that information exempted under sub-section (1) or exempted under the Official Secrets Act, 1923 can be disclosed if public interest in disclosure overweighs the harm to the protected interest.
Are there any organisations exempt from providing information under RTI Act?
Yes, certain intelligence and security organisations specified in the Second Schedule, are exempted from providing information, excepting the information pertaining to the allegations of corruption and human rights violations.
Readers may feel free to post any query and clarification that arises out of this column, either as a comment to this article, or as an email to me. In my next, I would respond to them, alongwith writing on further nuances of the RTI Act, discussing instances such as what if information is not provided by the PIO, if the information is wrongly denied, if the public authority has not designated a PIO, if the RTI application was filed with the wrong public authority that has no information on the given issue, etc.
[Paras Nath Singh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]