WHEN CIVIC activist Qaneez Sukhrani had failed to get information she was seeking under the Right to Information (RTI) Act from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) cell of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), she filed a second appeal under the Act with the State Information Commissioner (SIC) Pune bench.
As information was delayed, Sukhrani prayed for appropriate fine to be levied against the errant Public Information Officer (PIO) and the Appellate Authority (AA). The case had come up for hearing and Sukhrani made a strong case for penalty in all three of her appeal. However, when the order of the SIC reached her hand, Sukhrani was astonished to see that the SIC had issued showcauses in two cases and had fined just Rs 2,000 in the third case. “In the third case, 298 days had passed and no information was given. The RTI Act talks of levying a fine of Rs 250 per day and maximum of Rs 25,000. I fail to understand how the SIC came to the fine of Rs 2,000 as the order did not have the break up also,” she said.
Sukhrani also said that the order had failed to mention the answers provided in the other two show causes which exempted the officers from penalty. “For citizens like us the RTI Act and the SIC are the highest courts which we can go to. If the SIC starts going slow or act arbitrarily we don’t know where to go,” she said.
Penal action under Section 20 (1) of the RTI Act is supposed to be one of the deterrent clauses put in the Act for its effective implementation. Delay in providing information, providing wrong or misleading information are the scenarios where the SIC can impose penalty on the PIO or the AA that is deducted from the salary of the errant officers. The penal action can range from Rs 250 per day and maximum up to Rs 25,000.
However, over the last three years in Maharashtra, both the quantum and number of cases when fine is imposed have been going down. This supposed leniency by the SICs, activists and users, say is taking off the “teeth” of the Act. The annual SIC report of 2014 shows that total of Rs 42,37,00 fine was imposed which last year was Rs 56,11,000. For the year 2011 the total fine imposed was Rs 44,42,750 while in 2012, the fine had dipped to Rs 38,08,500. Annual reports of the years previous to 2011 show no specific trend.
This supposed going slow, as Sukhrani says, puts the RTI user in the dock as they have almost no other door to knock on. “The only legal recourse in front of us is to move the High Court which is both time consuming and expensive,”she said.
The present trend of lowering fines, RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, says has much to do with the present Information Commissioners also. “All the present SICs are former senior officers. They are not likely to go harsh on their former brethren in service,” he said. Kumbhar said the onus of proper implementation of the Act rest on the SICs and the penal action is one of the most potent weapon in their hand to do so. “However the SICs are not doing their bit and it’s the RTI user who is suffering at the end of the day,” he said.