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This article is written by Arundhati Roy

Introduction

The enactment of the Right to Information Act in 2005 has been considered a revolutionary move by the country’s lawmakers. The legislators’ intention behind the formulation of the Right to Information Act (RTI) is to encourage transparency and accountability in the functioning of the Government administration with the underlying purpose to curtail the corruption deep-rooted in our society. 

RTI empowers citizens by giving them the right to access any information pertaining to any public authority within a reasonable time. In order to make democracy work in a real sense for the people, the Right to information, which is an indispensable part of the freedom of speech & expression embodied under Article 19(1) of the Constitution, has been made a statutory right. Citizens get an opportunity to make themselves more vigilant about the government mechanism, as it is indeed said that a well-informed citizen is in an advantageous position to make the government accountable for its acts. 

As phrased by Abraham Lincoln, “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” the Right to information is a weapon given in the hands of the citizens to make this democracy a success. The present article is a critical appraisal of the implementation of the RTI Act in view of the RTI Rules framed by the States in India.

RTI Rules and the RTI Act

The RTI Act is an Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 2005 to give the citizens the right to seek information or ask questions relating to the government departments, whether Central or State government. Any citizen can ask the government or public authority to furnish details sought through an application filed under Section 6(1) of the RTI Act. 

The application should be filed along with the prescribed fee, which is Rs 10 for the Central Government, and it may vary as per the State RTI Rules. It is the Public Information Officer’s (PIO) duty to dispose of the application within 30 days, and if the information is rejected, the PIO has to state the reason for the refusal.

Now, RTI Rules are prescribed by the Central Government and the respective State Governments to deal with the fee structure, the mode of payment of fees, and a format so provided by such RTI Rules.

The RTI Rules, 2012, for the Central Government came into existence on 31st July 2012. As stated in the notification, the Central Government had made the rules in exercise of the power which is conferred upon it by virtue Section 27 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (22 of 2005) and in replacement of the Central Information Commission (Appeal Procedure) Rules, 2005 and the Right to Information (Regulation of Fee and Cost) Rules, 2005, excluding the things which were done or omitted to be done before such replacement took place.

Similarly, the State Governments make the RTI Rules by exercising the powers which are bestowed upon them by clauses (b) and (c) of sub-section (2) of Section 27 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (Central Act 22 of 2005). The primary purpose for which these Rules are formed is to prescribe a fee that is to accompany the application. 

These Rules stipulate a complete fee structure which includes not just the fee which is required to paid while applying but also the amount which the applicant has to pay if the information sought is to be provided in the form of floppies, diskettes, copies, or in any other form as stated under the RTI Act. 

Further, the respective State RTI Rules also contain a format according to which the application for seeking information has to be made. It is to be noted that these formats so provided by the State RTI Rules must be followed accordingly while drafting the application. 

Section 27 of the RTI Act empowers the appropriate government to make rules by notification in the Official Gazette to carry out the provisions of the RTI Act. The clauses (b) & (c) of Sub-section (2) of Section 27 states that the appropriate government may make such Rules for the fee payable under Section 6(1) and the fee payable under sub-section (1) & (5) of Section 7 respectively.

For understanding the term appropriate government, one has to go through its definition as stated under Section 2(a) of the RTI Act. Appropriate government means in relation to a public authority which is

  • Established.
  • Constituted.
  • Owned,
  • Controlled or,
  • Substantially financed by funds which are provided directly or indirectly by the Central Government or the Union territory administration, the Central Government;
  • By the State Government, the State Government.

How RTI Rules affect the implementation of the RTI Act?

RTI Rules, whether prescribed by the Central Government or the State Governments, have to be taken into consideration while making an application to seek information under the RTI Act from any public authority. However, for a layman to know that these Rules are to be followed in order to ask any question from any government authority is a troublesome task. 

The Central Government provides for an offline mode of filing the application with a prescribed fee of Rs 10/- and provides for an online filing application. The amount of fee applicable to the online and offline mode is the same, and no such format is prescribed for making the application, making it a hustle-free process. 

The State RTI Rules hamper the intention of the RTI Act. A real-life example is presented here. In one of the situations, an RTI applicant had filed an application seeking information from the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Rajasthan High Court. 

The applicant had to face disappointment as the application was rejected because it was not according to the format which the Rajasthan High Court has specifically mentioned. The reason stated for denying the information read as, “Application is not in prescribed FORM ‘A’ as prescribed under Rajasthan Right to Information (High Court and Subordinate Courts) Rules, 2006.” 

Denying information on the basis that it is not as per the prescribed form is sheer arbitrariness and is an injustice not just to the applicant but also destroys the citizens’ faith in the RTI Act. How can information be denied on the reasoning that the application was not as per the prescribed format? 

The RTI Act was introduced to bring transparency and accountability in the working of the government mechanism. When a PIO refuses to give information stating such a reason, it is a violation of the citizens’ right to access any information under the RTI Act. Further, the RTI Act does not enshrine any provisions that clarify that information can be denied only because it is not as per the format. 

The RTI Act does not prescribe any format for seeking information. Section 6(1) of the RTI Act says that an application under this section has to be filed in English or Hindi or in the state’s official language along with the prescribed fee. 

Moreover, the other ground which was mentioned by the PIO of the Rajasthan High Court was that “Non-judicial Stamp/ Banker’s Cheque/Demand Draft of Rs 50 has not been enclosed and instead of that Indian Postal Order of Rs 10/- has been attached to it, and the same is returned.” 

As per this ground, the fee was insufficient, and it was not in any of the modes as specified by the Rajasthan Right to Information (High Court and Subordinate Courts) Rules, 2006. This highlights the fact that all the States have mentioned in their RTI Rules various methods in which the payment of the prescribed fee has to be made. 

The modes of payment include:

  1. Cash.
  2. Indian postal order.
  3. Demand Draft.
  4. Banker’s Cheque.
  5. Pay order.
  6. Court fee stamp.
  7. Non-judicial Stamp.
  8. By depositing in Treasury Challan under the Head of Account “0070 – Other Administrative Service.”

These modes of payment are different for each State in India, and the RTI Rules of the States contain the information regarding the same. However, there’s no uniformity in the manner in which the fee has to be paid. Some States opt for few methods, as stated above, while some states have other options. 

In such a scenario, the applicant faces difficulty while seeking information when he is not aware of such methods. It was once recommended by the Central Information Commission (CIC) that “RTI Stamps” should be introduced for the payment of RTI fees.

RTI Stamps

The Central Information Commission had once made a recommendation for introducing RTI Stamps to the Government and again reiterated the same in 2016. Nonetheless, a committee was formed by the Government to consider the recommendation, had counselled against the use of such stamps and termed them as they are neither legally nor financially feasible. 

Later on, the Commission had written a letter to the Department of Personnel and Training, Govt. of India, stating that the Postal Department has constituted a new committee to look again into the possibility of introducing RTI Stamps. Years have passed since 2016; the recommendation remains stale. 

This Commission’s recommendation needs to be considered to make the RTI Act more achievable and a step towards initiating an uncomplicated manner of payment of fees for the applicants. As said by one of the Information Commissioners, “There needs to be an immediate remedial action in respect of the confusion thus created as a result of the procedural lacunae resulting in RTI applications getting stuck in such administrative web.”

RTI Rules frustrate the purpose of the RTI Act

Azim Premji University, Bangalore, had conducted a study as a part of the Legal System Reforms Project. The study revealed that the RTI Rules notified by most of the High Courts frustrate the objective of the RTI Act. The findings of the study are as follows:

  1. The High Courts do not comply with the Right to Information Act, 2005. 
  2. The High Courts reject several RTI applications on the grounds which are outside the RTI Act.
  3. High Courts are only prepared to furnish the information available at hand but are hesitant to give information that requires compiled efforts.
  4. High Courts usually take about three weeks to reply to an RTI application.

These are few instances mentioned here stating in what ways the High Courts defeat the very purpose of the RTI Act.

In a petition filed by four law students challenging the Delhi High Court’s RTI Rules, it was contended that Rule 10, which prescribes an amount of Rs 50 for an application fee and Rs 5 for Xerox/ Photocopies per page, is “arbitrary, unreasonable and exorbitant for the General Public at large.” 

This contention was made in view of Rules 3 & 4 of the Right to Information Rules, 2012, which prescribes Rs 10 as an application fee and Rs 2 per page for making the photocopies available. In response to this petition, the Delhi High Court had decided to amend its Delhi High Court RTI Rules, 2006, to bring it in conformity with the RTI Act, 2005. 

In the year 2019, the Supreme Court was considering an appeal by the Institute of Company Secretaries of India against Delhi High Court judgment, wherein it had revoked the Guidelines framed by the Institute prescribing fee of Rs 500 per answer sheet payable for the supply of certified copies of answer books and Rs 450 per answer book. 

The Supreme Court held that if a person seeks the information under the provisions of the Right to Information, then payment has to be pursued under the Right to Information (Regulation of Fees and Cost) Rules, 2005 only.

Recently in 2020, directions were issued by the Central Information Commission (CIC) Prof. M Sridhar to the Universities and examining bodies in India not to charge more than Rs 2 per page of Answer books. CIC asked MHRD and UGC to implement the order and held that Rs 750 charged by Delhi University and high amounts by other bodies would breach the right to equality and violate RTI. 

The said order was passed after the Commission found merit in the argument of the student appellant that prescribing high cost and time restrictions will amount to complete denial of information to the students based on their economic status, which is a violation of Article 14,15 and 16 of the Constitution of India.

Conclusion

In the light of the above decisions of the Supreme Court and the Central Information Commission, it can be concluded that RTI Rules formulated by the respective State Governments and their High Courts are arbitrary in nature. Most of the Rules violate the RTI Act as well as the Right to Information (Regulation of Fees and Cost) Rules, 2005. 

Prescribing an unreasonable fee for seeking information or rejecting the application on the basis outside the RTI Act is unjust behaviour. An RTI application must be accepted even though it may be written in anyone’s handwriting. Rejection on the grounds of format is outright arbitrary. 

Citizens should not be discriminated against on the grounds of their access to resources or any conditions, including poverty. The RTI Rules are, in fact, inconsistent with the RTI Act. The RTI Rules are made irrationally without having the support of any logical reason. The States are using RTI Rules abusively to generate more income at the cost of denying information to the citizens for unjustifiable reasons. A surveillance system should be set up at the Central Level to keep a check on the State RTI Rules so that the motive behind the formulation of the RTI Act does not vanish at the end of the day. 

Moreover, the mode of payment of the fee should be made uniform. This will enable even a layman to access the Government’s records without going through a complicated procedure. The State Governments should make an effort to spread awareness among the citizens regarding the rules, and the dissemination of information should be made as per the provisions of the RTI Act. 

The recommendation of the CIC to introduce “RTI Stamps” should be contemplated. The Act was introduced to give power to the citizens, but it has taken an anti-democratic form.


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