On March 31, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal department for the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI), put on its web site a circular titled “Framing RTI Rules, 2017 in supersession of RTI Rules, 2012”, and sought comments from the public until April 15.
On April 3, the Congress accused the government of attempting to subvert the RTI Act through the draft Rules. Senior leader Ahmed Patel questioned the government’s “intention”, and spokesperson Manish Tewari said that the draft Rules looked innocuous “but the devil lies in the detail”.
Specifically, Tewari said that the draft Rules had imposed a new word limit of 500 words on RTI applications, beyond which they could be rejected, and that the charges for replies had been raised steeply and photocopying charges had been doubled.
Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu has rejected the Congress allegations, saying the proposed Rules regarding the word limit and application fees remain the same as they were under the UPA government. He has described Tewari’s allegations as “a blatant lie and a malicious campaign”.
What was the need to scrap existing (2012) Rules and bring new ones?
Under Section 27 (1) of the RTI Act, 2005, “The appropriate Government [which could be either the central or a state government] may, by notification in the Official Gazette, make Rules to carry out the provisions of this Act.” Section 27 (2) says, “In particular…, such Rules may provide for all or any of the following matters”, which includes, under Section 27(2)(e), “the procedure to be adopted by the Central Information Commission or State Information Commission… in deciding the appeals”, and, under Section 27(2)(f), “Any other matter which… may be prescribed.”
These Rules were framed by DoPT in 2012. In the mean time, the Central Information Commission (CIC) had framed the CIC (Management) Regulations, 2007. These Regulations were, however, quashed by the Delhi High Court in 2010, which ruled that the CIC had no power to make Regulations.
But some High Courts, including Patna High Court, have approved the Regulations framed by their respective State Information Commissions. These Rules were framed under Section 12(4) of the RTI Act, which says: “The general superintendence, direction and management of the affairs of the Central Information Commission shall vest in the Chief Information Commissioner who shall be assisted by the Information Commissioners and may exercise all such powers and do all such acts and things which may be exercised or done by the Central Information Commission autonomously without being subjected to directions by any other authority under this Act.”
The CIC challenged the decision of Delhi High Court in the Supreme Court. The next hearing is on May 2. Before that, the government wants comprehensive new Rules, and has proposed the draft in question — seeking comments until April 15. These draft Rules are almost a merger of the CIC (Management) Regulations, 2007 and the RTI Rules, 2012, and seem aimed principally at reducing the number of appeals and complaints to the CIC. The government could finalise the Rules before it goes before the Supreme Court.
Okay, so is the 500-word limit new?
No, it is not. It is in the RTI Rules, 2012.
Rule 3 of the RTI Rules, 2012 says: “An application under sub-section (1) of Section 6 of the Act shall be accompanied by a fee of Rupees ten and shall ordinarily not contain more than five hundred words, excluding annexures, containing address of the Central Public Information Officer and that of the applicant: Provided that no application shall be rejected only on the ground that it contains more than five hundred words.”
This remains unchanged in the draft new Rules.
And is there a change regarding abatement of an appeal/complaint in case of death?
Rule 12(2) of draft Rules says: “The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant.” The CIC (Management) Regulations, 2007, which was quashed by Delhi High Court, too had said, “The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant or complainant.”
However, in the light of attacks on RTI users and activists, the Central Information Commission had, in September 2011, resolved: “If it (CIC) receives a complaint regarding assault or murder of an information seeker, it will examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned Department(s) to publish the requested information suo motu on their web site as per the provisions of law.” The CIC had also resolved to follow up on the criminal cases filed in such matters.
The matter of abatement of appeals and complaints in the case of death of the appellant/complainant was not in the RTI Rules, 2012. If the draft RTI Rules now replace existing RTI Rules, an appeal or complaint would abate (lapse without any action) once the CIC comes to know that the appellant/complainant is no more. Activists fear this might increase the risk of attacks on RTI users.