The UGC and other public authorities cannot deny clarifications sought by RTI applicants if it is part of their duty to collect that information, the Central Information Commission has said, rejecting the plea of the higher education regulator that explanations cannot be sought under the transparency law.
In several previous decisions, the Commission and high courts have allowed public authorities to reject RTI applications if the applicant is seeking explanations and clarifications.
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The argument given by the Central Information Commission (CIC) and the high courts had been that clarifications or probing questions do not fall within the ambit of the definition of “information” under the RTI Act.
Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu made a major distinction in his order in the matter, saying the University Grants Commission (UGC) or any public authority cannot refuse to give clarifications if it is part of their duty.
The CIC has also issued a show-cause notice to an under secretary-level officer of the UGC who had refused to clarify to an RTI applicant whether a particular course was recognised by it.
The UGC had denied to share the information, saying it can only give information about records held by it and cannot give clarifications under the RTI Act.
Acharyulu was deciding the plea of Ram Kishan Sharma who sought to know the list of UGC recognised courses for career advancement scheme.
“The policy of UGC must be providing clarifications for such genuine academic doubts. Though it appears to be technically right according to section 2(f), it leaves student community in confusion regarding validity of a course.
“Not informing the validity of a course amounts to abdication of their duty to inform, as that duty was prescribed by the statute and that is their basic function,” he said.
The Information Commissioner admonished the UGC, saying “policy deficit” in the organisation has been exposed by the RTI application. “In fact, the UGC has to understand the doubts of such students or parents and recognise the need for clarification arising out of such RTI applications and prepare the FAQs accordingly.
“The UGC should entrust a team to scrutinise such requirements out of the RTI applications and continuously increase the number of clarifications under FAQs,” Acharyulu said in the order.
Acharyulu said the increase in the number of RTI applications seeking such clarifications reflect on the public authority leading to an inference that the UGC is not properly communicating to the people about the validity of courses and degrees.
He said instead of physically approaching or telephonically asking, the applicant has paid Rs 10 in the form of RTI fee, creating an obligation on the UGC to respond.
“Hence, the Commission directs the respondent authority not to refuse to give clarifications,” the Commissioner said.
Acharyulu said if not, the commission would be compelled to initiate penal proceedings and also direct the public authority to pay compensation to the appellants in similar circumstances because the appellant’s RTI request was a necessity arising out of non-performance of its duty under section 4(1)(c) and (d) of the RTI Act.
“The information sought is not prohibited by any exemption. Even if appears to be a clarification which could be denied under first part of Section 2(f), it has to be given under second part of Section 2(f) as the UGC Act provided access to that information held by the UGC concerning the universities — both public and private,” he said.
He said the UGC cannot forget that they recognise universities/institutions and their courses after examining the compliance with prescribed standards.
“The Commission (is) surprised at the way the public authority is refusing to clarify an academic doubt. The UGC being an academic regulatory has statutory duty to inform/educate the people about the courses/degrees and their validity as mandated by the law…,” he said.
Issuing a show-cause notice to the Central Public Information Officer of the UGC, Acharyulu directed the higher education regulator to explain why it should not be ordered to pay compensation/costs to the appellant.