India should be governed with the principle ‘One Nation - One Rule’ at least in respect of the Right to Information fees and its mode of payment
The Constitution-bench verdict dated November 13, 2019, of the Supreme Court declaring even the office of Chief Justice of India as public-authority under RTI Act has been welcomed, but may not serve the purpose till the Union government takes more corrective measures.
The remedy is that the government by notification may declare all public-private-partnerships, sports-bodies, cooperative-societies and other such bodies, public-authorities under the RTI Act. Land and Building Departments of central and state governments should study all cases of allotment of land or government-accommodations at subsidised rates or lease, and declare all these as public-authorities under the RTI Act.
However, effective steps should be taken to prevent misuse of the RTI Act, which will be a boon to genuine information-seekers by drastically reducing pendency at Information Commissions apart from saving man-hours and expenses for both the public-authorities and the petitioners.
Basic RTI fees should be uniform throughout the country
Section 27 and 28 of the RTI Act give power to Competent Authorities and state-governments to draft their own rules which include fixing of RTI fees and mode of payment of RTI fees. Several Competent Authorities and states misused their power by having RTI fees as high as rupees 500, which in fact was aimed to discourage the RTI Act. Several states fixed RTI fees for filing First Appeals also. However Supreme Court in its verdict dated March 20, 2018 on a petition filed by Common Cause imposed a capping of Rs. 50 to be maximum RTI fees.
India should be governed with the principle "One Nation - One Rule" at least in respect of RTI fees and its mode of payment. Best is to club copying-charges of first twenty copied with basis RTI fees of Rs. 10 (for Central public-authorities) thus making Rs. 50 as uniform RTI fees throughout the country inclusive of charges of first twenty copied pages. That will largely prevent misuse of RTI Act just for sake of fun or publicity. There must not be any fees for filing First or Second Appeals. Such a system will not affect poor persons below poverty line (BPL category) because they are already exempted from paying RTI fees. However, to prevent big contractors and others misusing the provision by filing RTI applications under names of their workers of BPL category to get copying-charges in thousands of rupees waived off, persons under BPL category may be required to pay copying-charges for copied pages exceeding twenty.
There is a need to accept repeated CIC-recommendations for issue of RTI stamps. Handling the cost of a postal-order of value Rs. 10 costs the postal-department about Rs. 50 with cost of handling of postal-orders by a public-authority and bank-clearing even extra. The best remedy to overcome the situation is to accept frequent CIC-verdicts and administrative-request of CIC by postal-department to issue special RTI stamps (like earlier stamps for payment of licence-fees of radios and TV sets) in denominations of Rs. 2, 10 and 50 which will save crores of rupees annually to public-exchequers in using postal-orders as mode of payment of RTI fees. These RTI stamps should be conveniently available at all post-offices and counters of public-authorities and other convenient sale-points.
This will tackle the situation where public-authorities like National Green Tribunal (NGT) refuse acceptance of RTI fees in cash with nearby post office at Baroda House not selling postal orders thus putting RTI applicants in big difficulty.
The provision of sending post-free RTI applications should be extended to all 160,000-odd post-offices.Post-free RTI applications addressed to central public-authorities should be extended to all about 160,000 post-offices rather than just about 4,500 post offices presently. It is not difficult because every post-office however small it may be, daily sends post-bag to Head Post Office with registered post, cash and unsold revenue-articles. This post-bag can carry post-free RTI applications received at the post-office.
The provision of auto-emailing of RTI responses must be there on RTI applications filed on-line. The portal for filing on-line RTI applications should be modified so that RTI responses and orders of First Appellate Authorities may also be auto-emailed rather than RTI applicants required to go to portal for viewing of RTI responses. SMS-alerts about emailing of RTI responses can also be there. Rather it will be still more advantageous for users of the RTI Act if RTI responses may be e-mailed on email IDs provided on RTI applications filed through hard copies.
The order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court to make ID proof compulsory with every RTI application, First Appeal and petitions before Information Commissions must be implemented. The Department of Personnel and Training should issue a circular in tune with para 23 of verdict dated November 2, 2012, in the matter-Fruit and Vegetable Union versus Unknown (CWP 4787 of 2011) which requires ID proof compulsory to be attached with every RTI application, First Appeal and Second Appeal or complaint filed with Information Commissions. Already the aspect has been adopted in Odisha. Those who do not want to disclose their identity can file RTI applications through post-box hired at some post-office.
There has to be uniformity in websites for filing online RTI applications necessary. Only websites uniformly designed by National Informatics Centre should be mandatorily for all states. This has become necessary for state like Odisha that has made online filing of RTI applications a mockery when it is compulsory to download online-filled RTI application and then send it by post to the concerned department. If such is the case, then there is no utility of having a useless portal for filing online RTI applications. Furthermore option-list for payment does not include even all the public-sector banks. Website designed for DoPT is an ideal one, and should be compulsorily followed by all states.
Public-authorities are being misled by private firms to train officers for the RTI Act. Some organisation named Institute-Of-Public-Administration IPA has been sending letters to all public-authorities coming under purview of the RTI Act regarding holding paid two-day workshop on charging rupees heavily to the tune of Rs. 20,000 for local public authorities and Rs. 40,000 for outside-participant with spouse. Drafting of invitation-letters looks like that of some government-authorised body like Indian-Institute-Of-Public-Administration IIPA. Many public-authorities confusing the letter as if sent from a government-authorised have been sending participants to attend RTI-workshop at cost of public-exchequer. The DoPT, Central Information Commission CIC and Indian Institute of Public administration IIPA should immediately take cognizance of the matter to prevent such tactics to mint money by private bodies.
The Delhi Right To Information Act, 2001, needs immediate repeal after a High Court order. This is in reference to order dated August 8, 2018 in WPC 8278 of where the court said that "the Right To Information Act, 2005 would now override the Delhi Right To Information Act, 2001 as it would occupy the entire legislative field". The DRTI Act has lost all relevance with RTI Act in existence, and only a very few applications are now being filed under DRTI Act, with most officers of Delhi Government being totally unaware about provisions of DRTI Act. All such acts legislated by individual states, before RTI Act 2005 came into existence.
(The writer is RTI consultant holding the Guinness World record for most letters published in newspapers. The views expressed are personal.)