The Public Works (R&B) department officers with an aim to demoralize an information seeker recently asked to pay 1 lakh as photostat charges for getting information under the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI). The Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE) R&B Sub Division Sumbal District Bandipora through an official communication with his senior colleague (Executive Engineer R&B Division Bandipora) on 16th August 2023 in response to the RTI application filed by some local residents updated his boss that before providing the information the applicant may be asked to deposit Rs 1 lakh to prepare the information. The RTI application had been filed before the Executive Engineer and he seemed to have directed his AEE to provide the information. To make sure the applicant should not get hold of the information he wrote to his senior officer that applicant has to pay Rs one lakh as processing fees ?
The Assistant Executive Engineer’s -AEE’s letter to Executive Engineer R&B Division Sumbal dated 16.08.2023 reads:
“With reference to the above captioned subject and reference number , it is to submit that this office has received an RTI application from Shri Shabir Ahmad Parray , Shri Tariq Ahmad Parray and others wherein they have requested the following information : Certified attested copies of funds utilized for construction purpose in Hajin from 2018 till date including the name of building, road and allied works executed by R&B. Certified copies of NOCs issued for building permission from 2018 till date. Before framing the information the applicant may be asked to deposit an amount of Rs 1.00 lakhs approximately for preparing the information”
The RTI applicants had sought the information regarding the utilization of funds for construction purposes in Hajin area of Bandipora district which comes under construction division Sumbal. The applicants had also sought the certified attested copies of NOCs issued for the building permission purposes from 2018 to 2023.
This is a clear case to demoralize the information seekers who are not familiar with the RTI laws. I believe this has been done intentionally with an aim that information seekers will not be able to access the information as they won’t pay such a huge fee. I got to know about this case on the very next day when this letter was issued. Some local activist sent me the official letter on whatsapp and I was shocked. I posted the same on social media and many newspapers and digital media covered this news. The poor official isn’t aware of the fact that information he has been asked to provide has to be made proactively available on the official website of R&B PWD or DC office Bandipora as per the provisions of section 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005. Infact under e office and digital India programme also Govt offices have to keep all the information available in digital mode for the public. It seems AEE R&B Division Sumbal isn’t also aware of the fact that he is a designated PIO under RTI Act 2005 or Assistant PIO-APIO and he has to specify how many pages of information he is going to provide to the applicant ? If he is charging Rs 1 lakh that means his office has to make 50,000 photocopies as for each page Rs 2 are charged as per RTI Rules. But the officer has given a vague reply by demanding Rs 1 lakh fees.
Executive Engineer R&B Bandipora
In March this year, the Executive Engineer PWD R&B Division Bandipora asked an RTI applicant from below poverty line (BPL) category to pay more than Rs 4000 as xerox fees to get information under RTI Act 2005.
The letter signed by Executive Engineer R&B division Bandipora addressed to RTI applicant Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat who hails from Ajas Bandipora read as:
“Regarding the subject cited above , the requisite information as desired by you through RTI Act has been kept ready by this office and accordingly you are hereby informed to deposit the necessary photostat charges of the requisite documents Rs 4375”
On receiving the letter, the RTI applicant Parvaiz Ahmad got agitated as he had been asked to deposit huge charges to the Executive Engineer. The information seeker was not only agitated over the officer for demanding exorbitant fees but being an BPL RTI applicant , he was supposed to get the information free of cost as per the provisions of RTI Act 2005.
This is not the case with Parvaiz only but in Bonen Surasyar, district Budgam, the PMGSY engineers a few years back got a BPL ration card of an RTI applicant Mushtaq Ahmad cross checked through Assistant Director Food & Civil Supplies Budgam. I wish the Govt officers would have instead used such energy in digitizing their record and bringing more transparency in the Govt offices.
Sajad Hussain’s case
Sajad Hussain Pandit S/O Ali Mohammad Pandit R/O Iskander PoraTehsil Beerwah District Budgam in June 2016 filed an application under the erstwhile J&K RTI Act 2009 before the PIO in the office of Financial Commissioner (FC) Revenue Srinagar.
RTI applicant was called in person by FC Revenue office Srinagar and was given an official letter No: FC (Adm-RTI) 02/2016 dated 20/6/2016. The information seeker was asked to pay an amount of three thousand eight hundred sixty six rupees (Rs 3866) for getting information with regard to appointment of Patwaris more than a decade back. The information seeker alleged that there was bungling and favoritism in the said appointment.
The FC Revenue office letter reads as:
“In continuation to this office letter No FC(Adm-RTI) 02/2016 Dated 31/05/2016 , I am to say that information demanded by you are428 pages out of which 383 pages are of A 4 size which costs Rs 766 and rest pages are large size which got copied from market on large photocopier and costs Rs 3100”
We all are aware that Rs 2 was charged per photocopy for A 4 size until a few years back and for the bigger size photocopy maximum cost cannot be more than Rs 10 per page. This indicates that for the remaining 45 pages the Information seeker had to pay Rs 450 only maximum , but he was asked to pay Rs 3100 , plus Rs 766 for photocopying A4 size pages. When the information was received by the information , that was completely misleading and incorrect. He later on moved an appeal in the State Information Commission.
Info in Digital format
At a time when every bit of information is made public by the officers in J&K who don’t want people to have access to information especially reacting to developmental projects with huge fundings. Nobody would appreciate making 50,000 photocopies on a Xerox machine in this digital era. The Assistant Executive Engineer PWD (R&B) Sub Division Sumbal District Bandipora could have given the information to RTI applicants in a PDF format and sent them via email or through a pen drive had his intentions been honest and clean. The information sought won’t consist of more than 500 pages as the applicants only wanted information of the last 5 years ( 2018-2023).
The Public Information Officer (PIO) cannot charge any fees after the stipulated time of 30 days is over. Section 7 (6) of RTI Act 2005 reads
“Notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (5), the person making request for the information shall be provided the information free of charge where a public authority fails to comply with the time limits specified in sub-section (1) (30 days)”
In the aforementioned case the Assistant Executive Engineer -AEE or the deemed PIO asked the applicant to pay Rs 1 lakh fees after a lapse of 2 months. The RTI applicant had filed an application on June 16th 2023 and he was not provided information within 30 days. The AEE has committed a legal blunder by asking applicants to deposit the fees after 60 days’ time. This makes it clear that designated officers under RTI Act 2005 (PIOs, APIOs or Appellate Authorities) are ignorant about the RTI Act 2005 and its rules. The Government must take steps to train them. I am sure the J & K administration headed by Lt Governor Mr Manoj Sinha will take serious notice of 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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