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Objective of RTI Act is getting defeated, activist tells HC

‘Information commissions take months together to dispose of second appeals’

A public interest litigation petition has been filed in the Madras High Court, highlighting how efforts to obtain information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 are getting frustrated due to non-prescription of a time limit for disposal of second appeals by information commissions, even in matters related to life or liberty of citizens.

Justices M.M. Sundresh and R. Hemalatha on Tuesday directed central government senior panel counsel Sunita Kumari to take notice on behalf of the Union Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions and obtain instructions by September 10. They also ordered notices to the State government and the information commissions.

Puducherry-based RTI activist Saurav Das had filed the PIL petition. His counsel M.V. Swaroop told the court that Section 7 of the Act mandates Public Information Officers (PIOs) to provide information within 48 hours in matters concerning life or liberty of a person and within 30 days in all other matters.

Though the terms ‘life’ and ‘liberty’ had not been defined under the Act, they must be understood in the same sense in which they had been used in Article 21 of the Constitution and cover a plethora of subjects including health, crime, detention, police action, privacy and those having direct consequences on individuals or the public at large, he said.

“It is another matter that the deadline of 48 hours fixed by the lawmakers for responding to such applications is followed more in breach than in compliance, and there have been many instances of PIOs having taken more than 30 days to respond even to genuine RTI applications concerning life and liberty,” he claimed.

The counsel went on to state that Section 19 of the Act provides for filing an appeal before the First Appellate Authority if an applicant was not content with the reply of a PIO, and Section 19(6) makes it mandatory for disposing of such first appeals within a maximum period of 45 days.

However, no such time limit had been prescribed under the enactment for disposal of second appeals preferred before the Central Information Commission (CIC) or the State Information Commission (SIC), not even when the issue concerned the life or liberty of a person, the lawyer complained and insisted on prescription of a deadline.

“Due to non-prescription of a time limit, CICs and SICs take one to three years to dispose of second appeals. In result, as many as 30,933 second appeals and 4,804 complaints received directly under Section 18 of the Act were pending before the CIC as on August 6 this year,” he pointed out.

In his affidavit, the petitioner stated that the CIC had taken into account the difficulties faced by applicants due to COVID-19 and requested the Union Ministry on April 22 to ensure that all central PIOs create a unique e-mail ID to receive RTI applications and also put in place a mechanism to accept the requisite fees online.

The petitioner too followed it up with the Ministry on June 10. However, nothing fruitful transpired, he complained, seeking an interim order directing the creation of unique e-mail IDs by all central PIOs. He also wanted CIC and TNSIC to constitute special benches to deal with RTI applications related to COVID-19.

His main prayer was to direct the Centre and the State government to fix a time limit for disposal of second appeals as well as direct complaints by the CIC and the SIC.

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