By Prakhar Jain
THE CHHATTISGARH Assembly will now consider an applicant’s intent before giving information under RTI. It might even refuse the application if it is convinced it has been made with mala fide intent. This clearly goes against the RTI Act, which says that an applicant requesting information shall not be required to give any reason. But can intent be ascertained without asking the reason?
The Assembly enforced this rule last month by issuing a notification. It has also hiked the fee for an RTI application concerning the Assembly from Rs 10 to Rs 500. And the copy of documents provided will also cost more, setting citizens back by Rs 15 per page instead of Rs 2 charged elsewhere in the country.
“Earlier, there were no (specific) rules for the Legislative Assembly. We adopted this model from Uttar Pradesh,” says Assembly Secretary Devendra Verma.
Chhattisgarh Speaker Dharam Lal Kaushik defends the notification saying the information regarding the questions raised by MLAs is still provided at a cost of Rs 1 per copy and the higher fee would apply only to the information sought about the Assembly.
RTI activists aren’t amused by the Assembly’s decision. “The underprivileged will have to sacrifice a lot of money to file an RTI application. It goes against the spirit of the law,” says Shekhar Singh, a member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), the NGO that was instrumental in bringing the RTI Act.
Veteran RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal adds that this model would encourage other states to follow suit. “This is despite the Department of Personnel & Training requesting, in its circulars, states and competent authorities to maintain a uniform fee of Rs 10,” he says.
Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi couldn’t agree more. “Bad practices get easily copied and this is disappointing,” he says. “The intent clause is disrespectful of the law. The RTI Act talks of a reasonable fee and Rs 500 is not reasonable. These (legislative) bodies just don’t want to give information.” Gandhi has shot off letters to the CM, Leader of the Opposition and the Speaker asking them to maintain the fee at Rs 10 per application and Rs 2 for additional copies.
This is not the first time that such a regressive step has been initiated by the Chhattisgarh government. In 2009, it limited the word count to just 150 and number of subjects to one for each RTI application. The restriction was also adopted by the Madhya Pradesh Assembly in 2010. “Restricting the subject to one is illegal under the RTI Act as it clearly provides for even partial transfer of application to other authorities if all the information is not available with one department,” says NCPRI’S Nikhil Dey.
Similarly, Prateek Pandey, an RTI activist of the Chhattisgarh Citizen Initiative, says there is lack of clarity. “Once I asked the former State Information Commissioner (SIC) to define ‘subject’ and he just smiled. If the SIC can’t answer that, how will a Public Information Officer? Everyone interprets it in his own way,” he says.
The SIC recently ruled against the “Speaker’s privilege” to deny information in the case of an applicant seeking audit reports of the accounts of the House and the applications received by it. Many MLAs have also been in the line of fire due to information obtained under RTI last year, which revealed that they had been receiving gifts such as microwave ovens, washing machines, etc., in violation of rules.
The way ahead is either to accept the decision meekly or wait for someone to fight it out in court saying that the notification is unreasonable and unlawful. Shekhar Singh says that this confrontation can be avoided. He gives the example of Manipur, where the government had introduced a similar rule and when the activists wrote to them, the state authorities reduced the application fee.
Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.