In the last week of January, Justice Sanjeev Sablok of the Delhi High Court handled two cases of two Public Information Officers (PIOs) who petitioned against penalty levied on them by the Central Information Commissioners. He gave different judgments on the two cases, one of which reflects on the approach of Information Commissioners, who sometimes go beyond their jurisdiction while giving orders. The other portrays the courage of the Central Information Commission (CIC) in giving a stiff penalty, though it remains to be seen whether it is taken to the logical end.
One case pertained to the Tihar Jail authorities being directed by the CIC to pay compensation to one Mr Gandhi, who was detained for four extra days, besides directing the prison department to frame rules for such cases. The Delhi High Court overturned this order.
In the other case, the PIO of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) was directed by the CIC to be given maximum penalty of Rs25,000, which was upheld by the Delhi High Court.
Case I: HC Overturns CIC Order on Compensation to Prisoner
Om Prakash Gandhi, who served one year imprisonment in Tihar Jail in a cheque fraud case, completed his sentence but was kept in detention for four extra days. Gandhi filed over 30 RTI applications regarding his extra detention and the compensation that he should be paid for it. Finally, he appealed to the Central Information Commission.
The CIC directed that the PIO should pay a token compensation to Gandhi and also directed the Tihar Jail authorities “to put into place a policy or guideline or regulation for a system of resolving disputes regarding remission and paying compensation to prisoners who lost their personal liberty due to extra detention.”
Justice Sachdev of the Delhi High Court stayed the order of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), where the PIO of Tihar Jail was ordered to pay compensation to Gandhi for keeping him under extra detention. The High Court order stated, “The CIC has exceeded the jurisdiction conferred upon it by the Right to Information Act, 2005. It is contended that the CIC appears to have exercised power vested in a Constitutional Court conferred under Article 226 of the Constitution. It is contended that the CIC did not have the power to assess token compensation for delay in release of prisoners.
“Perusal of the order, prima facie, shows that the CIC has sought to exercise powers beyond those conferred on it under the Right to Information Act, 2005…Prima facie, this power does not vest in the CIC.”
Case Il: HC Upholds CIC Order on Penalty for Not Giving Information
An applicant had sought information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, from Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)’s Project Directorate, on funds allocated for Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in animals. The information pertained to the cost sheet for 2012-13; whether the ICAR Team at headquarters at Krishi Bhavan, New Delhi, was aware of it and; copy of the covering letter of the price per unit for 3AB3 Indirect ELISA Kits to individual FMD centres or network units or any other public institutes engaged in FMD sero-surveillance; name and designation of the ICAR official(s) who had instructed and or authorised the Project Directorate on Foot and Mouth Disease (PDFMD) to issue 3AB3 Indirect ELISA and so on.
Most of the replies by the CPIO were, “It is an institute matter.”
Since the RTI applicant was not satisfied with the reply given, a complaint under Section 18 of the Act was filed with the CIC. The CIC said, “We asked Dr BB Dash, CPIO of Project Directorate on Foot and Mouth Disease to explain his reply dated 28 September 2015 in response to various queries of the RTI application, in which he disposed of most of the queries by stating that it was an institute matter. Dr BB Dash, CPIO, failed to provide the information without any cogent reason. The nature of his replies, to various queries in his letter dated 28 September 2015 shows that these were meant to circumvent the queries raised by the complainant in her application. All this is a pointer to wilful denial of information. Therefore, in our view, this is a fit case for imposition of the maximum penalty of Rs25,000 on Dr BB Dash, CPIO under Section 20 (1) Of the RTI Act.”
“…The Head of the Project Directorate on Foot and Mouth Disease is directed to ensure that the above amount of penalty is recovered in five equal instalments from the monthly pay of Dr BB Dash, CPIO, beginning with his pay for the month of December 2016. The amounts so deducted should be remitted to the Deputy Registrar, Central Information Commission, Room No. 305, August Kranti Bhawan, Bhikaji Cama Place, New Delhi -110066 by way of Demand Draft drawn in favour of Pay and Accounts Officer, Central Administrative Tribunal, New Delhi.”
The CIC came to the conclusion that the nature of CPIO’s replies to various queries showed that these were meant to circumvent the queries raised by the complainant in her application, which amounted to wilful denial of information. The CIC also observed, “The CPIO is to provide the information sought and, in case the information is not liable to be provided on account of it being exempt, give sufficient reasons for denying the supply of information.”
The Judge concluded “…the CIC has not erred in returning a finding that information sought has not been provided… No cogent explanation has been rendered for non-supply of the information. Thus, the order of the CIC dated 22 November 2016 cannot be faulted.’’
The petition was dismissed by Justice Sanjeev Sachdev.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.