5 Key provisions of RTI that every Citizen must know

Right to Information Act, 2005

The Right to Information Act, 2005 was notified on 21–6–2005 and become fully operational on the expiry of 20 days of its announcement.

This is a past breaking Legislation which, for the first time gave a citizens of the country a statutory right to obtain information from Public Authorities. So much so, that in various circumstances it even over-rides the provisions of the Official Secret Act.

However, most of the training courses pertaining to the RTI Act are focused around the functioning of the PIOs and the CPIOs i.e. Principal Information Officers and Central Principal Information Officers. There are a number of very effective citizen friendly provisions in this Act which are generally not very widely known. The objective of this short note is to highlight those provisions for the benefit of general public. We do so by answering the few fundamental questions:

Question 1: Under Section 6(i) the request for information can be made. However, can a citizen inspect the official record?

Answer: Section 6 (i) has to be read with Section 2 (f) and Section 2 (j) which respectively defined information and right to information. Section 2 (i) may also be the relevant in certain cases. These are reproduced below for facility of ready reference:

(f) “information” means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force;

(j) “right to information” means the right to information accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes the right to — (i) inspection of work, documents, records; (ii) taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; (iii) taking certified samples of material; (iv) obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device;

(i) “record” includes — (a) any document, manuscript and file; (b) any microfilm, microfiche and facsimile copy of a document; © any reproduction of image or images embodied in such microfilm (whether enlarged or not); and (d) any other material produced by a computer or any other device;

It is very clear that right to information as defined under Section 2 (j) also includes inspection of work, documents and record etc. Thus a citizen can specifically request for examination of document including official file (nothing as well as correspondence portion). Even the inspection of official emails is allowed under this section. As a matter of fact, civil works carried out by Public Authorities / Government Departments can also be inspected by the citizen and he may be take samples of the material used by virtue of section 2 (j) (iii). Not only can a citizen inspect official files and electronic information / data, he has been granted right of taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents for records.

Thus these very important provisions can be invoked by the citizen while applying for information in appropriate cases. Normally, it is not that we can only seek copies of official documents.

Question 2: Can a citizen apply for information without attaching the official fee?

Answer: Normally the PIOs refer to provision of Section 6 (i) under which any request for information has to be accompanied by “such fee as may be prescribed”. Normally that citizen does not know what the prescribed fee is and in most cases he does not even know what would be the number of pages or the volume of record. As such, he may not be in a position to append his request for information with the prescribed fee in shape of postal orders / bank drafts etc.

In this connection, attention of the citizen is drawn to section 7 (3) (a) which has been reproduced below for facility of ready reference:

(a) the details of further fees representing the cost of providing the information as determined by him, together with the calculations made to arrive at the amount in accordance with fee prescribed under subsection (1), requesting him to deposit that fees, and the period intervening between the dispatch of the said intimation and payment of fees shall be excluded for the purpose of calculating the period of thirty days referred to in that sub-section;

As per this legal provision, in case there is any shortfall / deficiency in the fee, the request for information cannot be out-rightly rejected on account of deficiency in fee and it is incumbent upon the PIO to send intimation to the applicant citizen, to make good the deficiency.

Thus in my humble opinion, even if an applicant submits a request for information without the prescribed fee, his request has to be entertained and decided by the PIO in accordance with the law, subject to the condition that the requisite fee shall be collected before the information is given to the applicant. This provision is very useful in circumstances when request for information has to be lodged at a short notice and there are no facilities like Post Office / Bank nearby.

Question 3: Do we need to disclose the reason for which information is required?

Answer: No. It is very clear that Section 6 (2) of the RTI Act that the applicant is not required to give any reasons for requesting for the information. However, most of the PIOs refer to Section 8 (i) (j) and rejected the information sought on the ground that personal information is sought, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest. Unfortunately this information is very hugely and vaguely worded and it appears the PIOs is the only authority that his required to decide whether the personal information sought relates to any public activity or interest. Many PIOs rigidly rejected request for information even where is very minuscule amount of personal information is involved.

In this context, this Section 8 (i) (j) must be read with proviso which is again reproduced below for facility of ready reference:

(i) cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers:

Provided that the decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over:

(j) information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information:

It is quite clear that information which cannot denied to Parliament or State Legislature cannot be denied to an applicant under the RTI Act. Thus in summary, neither the applicant is required to be compel to disclose reasons why he wants information and nor can be rejected without application of mind that the personal information has no relation to any public activity or interest.

Question 4:Can Cabinet papers be shared in the RTI?

Answer: Normally belief is that the Cabinet papers cannot be disclosed to the RTI applicants. Reference is generally made to Section 8 (1) (i) of the RTI Act, which is reproduced below for facility of ready reference:

(i) cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers:

Provided that the decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over:

A simple perusal of the complete legal provision would reveal that while Cabinet papers including record of deliberations of Council-of-Ministers, Secretaries and other Officers cannot be disclosed yet when the matter is complete or over (which effectively means that once the matter before the Council-of-Ministers is finally decided) such information cannot be denied. As a matter of fact, this provision has to be read with Section 4 (i)(c)as per which every Public Authority is required to publish all relevant facts. This provision is reproduced below for facility of ready reference:

(c) publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public;

Question 5:Are Public Authorities are required to give reasons for their administrative decisions?

Answer: It is normally believed that Public Authorities are not required to disclose reasons behind administrative decisions for some time regarding quasi-judicial decisions such as grant / refusal of an arms licenses.

In this connection, attention is drawn to Section 4 (i) (d) of the RTI Act as per which it is incumbent over Public Authority to provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to the affected persons.

This being the case, the citizen applicant has the right to seem information regarding the reasons for administrative decision, including the decision such as transfers and posting. This is a provision which is rarely invoked.

These Q&A’s are meant to empower the citizens. Don’t hesitate — go and use your rights, nay, power!

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The author superannuated as Special Chief Secretary, Punjab on 31st July, 2021, after nearly 37 years of service in the IAS. KBS Sidhu, ex-IAS He can be reached on kbs.sidhu@gmail.com

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KBS Sidhu, ex-IAS

Dad, Leo, Mentor, ex-IAS, 1984 batch, superannuated as Spl. Chief Secretary, Punjab. Electronics Engineer, University of Manchester, UK, and Harvard Alumnus.