The Delhi High Court has held that the Central Information Commission (CIC) has no power to recommend disciplinary action against the appellate authority under the penal provisions of the RTI Act as the same can be enforced only against the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO).
A bench of Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice V.K. Rao held that, “…the CPIO being custodian of the information or the documents sought for, is primarily responsible under the scheme of the RTI Act to supply the information and in case of default or dereliction on his part, the penal action is to be invoked against him only”.
In so holding, the bench upheld the order passed by a single judge on the plea moved by the Centre challenging the CIC’s order of November 12, 2014, in which disciplinary action had been recommended against the First Appellate Authority (FAA).
“The Appellate Authority is not the custodian of the information or the document. It is only a statutory authority to take a decision on an appeal with regard the tenability or otherwise of the action of the CPIO and, therefore, there is a conscious omission in making the Appellate Authority liable for a penal action under Section 20 of the RTI Act and if that be the scheme of the Act and the legislative intention, we see no error in the order passed by the learned writ Court warranting reconsideration,” said the bench headed by the Chief Justice.
The division bench was hearing an appeal moved by RTI activist R.K. Jain against the single judge order.
Jain had, in October 2013, filed an RTI application seeking notings in respect of his earlier RTI applications besides the name and designation of each of the CPIOs/deemed CPIOs and other officers who had dealt with each of his RTI applications. In addition thereto, inspection of all files, records and documents and copies of related notings was also sought.
He has also sought information with regard to the staff assigned and other information pertaining to the office of the Attorney General of India; information pertaining to opening of registers in the Administrative/Cash sections of the Departments of Legal Affairs; and information with regard to foreign and domestic tours of Ministers and officers of the rank of Joint Secretary and above.
His request was denied as the CPIO held that it was not possible to supply such a wide array of information but he was invited to carry out an inspection of the record.
Aggrieved, Jain went in to appeal before the FAA which affirmed the decision of the CPIO.
Jain then filed an appeal with the CIC which allowed the appeal and also recommended disciplinary action against the FAA.
The Centre went to the high court in appeal wherein the single judge set aside the part of CIC’s order recommending disciplinary action against the FAA.
It is to be noted here that the single judge had, however, agreed with Jain’s counsel that the RTI Act “requires a re-look, so that more teeth could be given to the CIC and the SIC with regard to their supervisory jurisdiction over the FAA. That being said the cure in that behalf does not lie with the Court. It is the legislature that needs to examine the issue as it is an aspect which squarely falls within its domain”.
Jain then went in appeal before the division bench which held that penal provisions are to be implemented or enforced only against the CPIO and not against any other authority like the senior ranking officer or the Appellate Authority who decides the appeal under Section 19(1).
Reading Sections 19 and 20 of the Act, the bench said, “From a perusal of the legislative intention and the broad architecture of the RTI Act, it is clear that under Section 20(1), the provisions have been made for imposing penalty against the CPIO and also making him liable for disciplinary action under Section 20(2)”.
“…it is clear that Section 19(1) makes a provision for filing of an appeal if a person is aggrieved by a decision or inaction of the CPIO. The Appellate Authority in Sub-Section (1) of Section 19 is classified as an officer senior in rank to the CPIO meaning thereby that under the scheme of RTI Act, the CPIO is a different authority or officer different from an Appellate Authority to whom an appeal lies under Sub-Section (1) of Section 19. If the legislative intent, as can be made out on a combined reading of various provisions are taken note of, it would be seen that the legislature only proposes for taking action against CPIO, and not against any other authority like the Appellate Authority or officer to whom the appeal lies,” it said.
On Jain’s argument, the bench said, “If the argument canvassed by the petitioner was to be accepted then by that interpretation, we would be expanding the meaning of a CPIO and we would be adding something more into the definition of CPIO than the one as was conceived by the legislature. This is not permissible under law and when the CPIO is only indicated to be officer against whom penal action can be taken under Section 20, we cannot read into the said statutory provision anything more by supplying words or meaning which would enlarge the scope of the penal provisions under Section 20.”