One of the foundations of accountability for our democracy is the Right to Information Act (RTI) of 2005. It can be hailed as a revolutionary legislation that bridges the gap between the government and those being governed. Section 6 of the RTI Act provides every citizen the opportunity to obtain information from the otherwise-opaque public authorities by filing an application with the Public Information Officer (PIO) on payment of a minimal fee. The procedure prescribed by the legislation has been kept fairly simple, in order to encourage citizen participation and make it tougher for the bureaucracy to reject applications. However, the bureaucracy has found a disguised way to navigate themselves out of it.
The authors of this article filed an RTI application with the Law and Legislative Department of the Government of Haryana in November 2018, seeking information about their budgetary allocation for the state judiciary. While they were aware that any questions on the flow of money would face some pushback, they did not fathom that their RTI application would receive 60 unusable replies from different departments of the state bureaucracy. This was made possible by invoking the provisions under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act.
Workings of Section 6(3)
Sometimes, it may happen so that an application is addressed to a public authority which is not in possession of the requested information. In order to save the applicant’s effort of filing a fresh application to the relevant authority, the RTI Act has provided Section 6(3). The PIO, under this section, is required to transfer the application to the authority to which the application might be more ‘closely connected to’. However, as the authors learned from their experience, this provision is being blatantly abused by some sections of the Indian bureaucracy.
The Travel Tale
The authors request for information was on the budget allocation for state judiciary. They, therefore, filed the application with the law department, which prepares the budget. However, the PIO of the said department invoked Section 6(3) to transfer the application to the high court, the administration of justice department and finance department of the Haryana government. The authors were not provided any reasons as to why the law department was not the appropriate public authority. The high court, in response, went on to reject the authors’ application on account of failure to pay the application fee. This seems slightly absurd since we never applied to them in the first place. Ideally, the fee paid should also be transferred between the authorities.
Thereafter, a second round of transfers followed. The administration of justice department further transferred the application to the engineer and chief of the Public Works Department (PWD), Haryana. Perhaps, an attempt can be made to justify this transfer as the PWD, in most states, is the executing authority for construction of new courts. However, over the course of the next three months, with additional rounds of transfer, the authors’ application made over 50 trips within multiple departments of the PWD, all across Haryana. It went to district headquarters and sub district offices from Dadri to Yamuna Nagar, from Hisar to Chandigarh, from engineer-in-chief to executive engineer to superintending engineer. It even reached the PIOs of the Buildings and Roads Department, electrical department and even the national highway department of sub-districts of the state.
The Final Result
Each time the application moved, a copy of the transfer letter was enclosed to the authors, in conformance to the RTI Act. Most of the responses, however, only said that “the information does not pertain to our department” or “the information you sought is as follows: NIL.” One line remained more or less common to all these letters. “Your application thus stands disposed of.”
After more than three months since the first application, the authors still receive ‘NIL’ replies and do not have usable information on budgetary allocation for the judiciary in Haryana. One probable lead that was received during this time was from PIO of the state government’s finance department, who suggested that further correspondence should be made in respect of information required with the concerned PIO of the Law and Legislative Department!
Is this a Dead End?
It is evident that Section 6(3) is a notoriously easy escape route when authorities are in a fix — either because they do not wish to disclose the information or when they ought to be in possession of the information but are not.
By transferring the application, the authorities deem it as disposed without passing a reasoned rejection order. If they were to reject the application instead, or give incomplete information, they would have to provide reasons to explain the same. This could be used as a ground by the applicant to challenge the decision of the PIO by filing an appeal before the Appellate Authority. The authorities are able to bypass this whole procedure because they can transfer the application.
Citizens who have filed a few RTI applications in the past would have, at some point, encountered this unassuming beast of a provision. The problem, however, is not on how this provision is written. The lawmakers could not have written the provision any differently, except by adding that the fees ought to also be transferred along with the application.
Like many other laws, the success of this provision lies not in its intent but in its execution. Till the time the authorities do not want to provide information, a provision such as Section 6(3) will continue to be abused.
The authors are research fellows at the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, New Delhi.
Originally published – https://www.firstpost.com/india/provision-in-rti-act-allowing-transfer-of-application-to-appropriate-department-gives-authorities-easy-escape-route-6546551.html