Emperor's New Clothes: Public Information Officers or Post Offices?

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Rs 1.05 crores made the news recently when it was revealed that the sum was collected by the Government in Srinagar from fines imposed for flouting Covid norms. However, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Kashmir chapter was deprived of nearly 60 percent of the collected fines.

In a RTI filed by this author in March this year, it was revealed that the disbursement of funds collected in Kashmir as a fine for Covid violations has been grossly misused. The RTI reply, a copy of which lies with Kashmir Observer, offers perspective on the frenzy following J&K administration’s drive to fine people for violating Covid norms on Red Cross’s receipts and also for allegedly resorting to coercion and threats to collect donations for the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) during two pandemic years.

The data obtained reveals that while J&K deposited Rs 1,05,38,620 as penalty money in government treasury, only Rs 43,88,060 of the penalty amount was deposited to Red Cross despite the fact that most of the fine receipts belonged to ICRS. “Total amount of penalty money recovered from 27th March 2020 to 1st March 2022 and deposited in Govt. Treasury under proper receipts in rupees is Rs. 1,05,38,620.” reads the reply by DDMO Srinagar. However, out of the Rs 43,88,060 deposited to Red Cross, “Rs 36, 97,365 was the amount provided as relief out of Red Cross to poor people/victims of other disasters”.

Notably, the RTI activists had sought details under the RTI from all the DCs of the valley but only the details provided to him were forwarded by the Srinagar administration. I had sought information under this RTI from all DCs but only, DC office Srinagar has provided this information. 60 percent of fines collected under the receipts of the Red Cross were never not deposited in the Red Cross account.

I had filed the application at the J&K Government on March 15, 2022 under DCS/DDMA/21/RTI/211-14. In response to my query, the office of the District disaster Management Authority, Srinagar on September 9 with information on all the points raised has said that there were 154 receipt books sent to SSp Srinagar that had collected Rs. 43,88,060 as the amount of fine.

There were 8 different categories of needy people, the reply noted, who were provided with the amount for financial assistance from the Red Cross amount. AS per the data provided, there were 15 CA cases who were provided Rs 1,04,500, 8 dialysis cases were given Rs 41,000, 5 heart cases were given Rs 23,500, 2 tumor cases were given Rs.7500.

It was in the several fire cases, death case/acid attack victims, destitute cases and widows who were given a financial assistance of more than 35 Lakhs. “114 fire cases were given Rs 7,16,000, 5 death/acid attack were given a financial assistance of Rs 3,69,820, 120 destitute cases were given Rs 7,91,825 and 2070 widows (01/04/2021 to 28/03/2022) were given Rs 16,43,220 as financial assistance from the penalty funds that were deposited in the Red Cross,” reads the data attached in the reply.

Covid Challan

In the midst of the emergency created by Covid-19, this uncanny penalty exercise was carried out by cops in Kashmir. It was observed that cops on duty were imposing fines but were handing out Red Cross receipts in return. The details of this exercise came to fore when this author filed an RTI last month. However, the effort has only yielded incomplete results on account of a lackadaisical postponement from the end of the authorities.

The RTI was forwarded from the Divisional Commissioner Kashmir’s office to all DC offices. However, barring DC office Srinagar, no other office has divulged data on the matter.

In Pulwama, the RTI application couldn’t find home as it was forwarded to all the Tehsildars of Pulwama district by invoking section 6 (3) of RTI Act 2005. The Additional DC (ADC) who is also PIO under RTI Act 2005 had forwarded the application according to a letter correspondence to the applicant.

While this process seems to be all in form related to norms, it is hardly so. The PIOs, in this case, the Additional DC had acted as a “post office” without following duties in spirit. The comment is hardly random and is infact from Delhi High Court’s statement in the Rakesh Kumar Gupta vs Central Information Commission case (2021) in which it said that Public Information Officers (PIOs) cannot “function merely as post offices' '. 

The court observed that Central/state PIOs cannot withhold information without a reasonable cause and evade disclosure of information. The order reads :

“Every effort should be made to locate information, and the fear of disciplinary action would work as a deterrent against the suppression of information for vested interests,” the HC said while stressing the PIOs “cannot function merely as post offices”, but ensure information is provided to the applicant”

The PIO has to “apply his/her mind, analyse the material” and then direct disclosure or give reasons for non-disclosure of information, the court added.

While the case in point is recent, the misuse of Section 6 (3) is not new.

Last year, in November, an application under RTI Act 2005 in Raj Bhavan filed by this author also faced a similar ordeal. The designated public information officer (PIO) in Raj Bhavan under section 6 (3) forwarded my RTI application to the Civil Secretariat Tribal Affairs Department. The officer was under the notion that the Tribal Affairs Department was the nodal agency for implementation of FRA in J&K, which isn’t the case here.

Then, the PIO in Tribal Affairs Department Civil Secretariat, on 2.12.2021 forwarded the RTI application to all Deputy Commissioners and Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) and asked them to provide the information about individual and community forest rights claims decided in their respective areas. Only the Deputy Commissioner Office Kishtwar and some DFOs provided the information satisfactorily.

The PIOs in DC offices Udhampur and Ganderbal further forwarded my RTI applications to their Tehsildars by invoking section 6 (3) of RTI Act 2005. Ironically, Tehsildars have nothing to do with the Forest Rights Act.

One wonders at the reason behind the PIO’s decision to send the said RTI application to the Tehsildar’s in the case of Ganderbal and Udhampur?

The consequential inference points at the possibility of evading the responsibility to provide information and the subsequent unavailability and lack of transparency related to FRA information.

Invoking Section 6 (3) Loophole

In spirit, Section 6 (3) of the RTI act has a noble intention, in keeping with the RTI Act 2005 which allows every citizen of India an access to information from public authorities.

Section 6 allows a citizen “to obtain any information under this Act” by requesting in writing or through electronic means accompanied by such fees as may be prescribed.

Subsection 3 of Section 6 shares the same intention and for the sake of saving the applicant’s effort and time it holds that if the information sought from a public authority is with another department, then, the Central/state public information officer (CPIO/PIO) must transfer the application to the authority possessing the required information within five days of receiving it and inform the applicant accordingly.

However, this ‘loophole’ in the Act is being increasingly used by government departments to deny information to RTI applicants by passing the buck. Even if the PIO possesses the information, the application is forwarded to other public authorities mostly subordinate to the officer.

Need Responsible and Responsive RTI PIOs

The expectations of professionally satisfactory dispersal of duties isn’t too much to ask for. Infact, Section 5(3) and (4) of RTI Act 2005 make it mandatory for a PIO to deal with requests of citizens seeking information and render reasonable assistance to them while taking the assistance of any other officer, if considered necessary by him or her, for the proper discharge of duties.

PIOs have to render “all reasonable assistance” where requests for information cannot be made in writing to the applicant making the request orally to reduce the same in writing.

Infact, Delhi High Court in its 2014 judgement in Ministry of Railways through Secretary & others vs Girish Mittal observed that Section 6(3) doesn’t mean that a Central PIO’s responsibility is only limited to forwarding applications to departments/offices.

“Forwarding an application by a public authority to another public authority is not the same as a public information officer of a public authority arranging or sourcing information from within its own organisation,” the court observed. 

The case relates to an RTI application filed by one Girish Mittal, who had sought information on the Garib Rath trains in all the zones from the ministry of Railways but didn’t get a reply within the stipulated 30 days. The Railways CPIO had forwarded his application to the Research Designs and Standards Organisation. Subsequently, he filed a complaint with the Central Information Commission (CIC), which directed the CPIO to furnish the information and imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on him. The CPIO challenged the CIC order in the court.

Emphasising that he cannot escape his responsibility by merely forwarding the application to other officials under Section 6 (3), Justice Vibhu Bakhru dismissed the CPIO’s petition. Maintaining that the information would be available with the Railway Board, the court directed the CPIO to furnish the information sought by Mittal.

These reflections on legislation make one question the responses one gets to RTI applications time and again. It raises genuine concerns over digressions such as those done in the case of DC office Pulwama’s decision to misdirect the RTI application to Tehsildars and mess the ordeal to one's Right to Information.

Last Word 

It took an RTI to reveal the fate of the public money collected during the health emergency. While the information about these cases should be handy, the officials imposing these fines in the first place shouldn't sit on the data. Such reluctance itself defeats the very ideals of Good Governance, the idea of which drives the present dispensation's discourse. The transparency should first start from the institute that propagates it.

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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