A division Bench of Delhi High Court Today held that Registrar of Cooperative Societies is a 'Public Authority' and hence duty bound to comply with the provisions of RTI Act and is required to provide information as provided for under Section 2(f) of the Act subject to the limitations enumerated under Section 8 of the RTI Act.
The Bench comprising of Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Deepa Sharma reversed a decision of Central information Commission in which it is held that the Cooperative Societies Act being a special Act took precedence over the RTI Act (which is a general Act) especially when the special Act itself provided to a bona-fide member of a Cooperative Society identical relief as provided under the RTI Act’.
Facts; The petitioner has been a member of the Sangha Mitra CGH Society since 1995. She had sought information from the SPIO regarding documents and accounts pertaining to the Society as well as minutes of the general body meeting of the Society. She had also sought information regarding charges payable to the DDA. Despite communication by the SPIO to the Society the latter gave no replies. The petitioner, then, approached the First Appellate Authority who, directed the SPIO to procure information sought by the petitioner from the Society and further supply it to the petitioner. It was also directed that in case of failure on the part of the Society to furnish information sought from it, suitable action would be initiated against it in terms of provisions of Section 139 of the DCS Act. Subsequently, the Society granted liberty to the petitioner to approach its office and inspect the records. As for the information sought by her regarding charges payable to the DDA, the SPIO sent a letter, dated 09.01.2008 to the Society, which it subsequently replied to. In their reply the Society stated that the information sought by the petitioner was voluminous and that the petitioner was required to be specific as to the information sought by her. It also stated that once the petitioner deposited the amount towards photocopying the documents they would be able to provide her with the information. However, in the intervening period of 20.12.2007 and 01.04.2008, the petitioner filed an appeal under Section 19 of the RTI Act, 2005, before the CIC on 15.02.2008.
Central Information Commission in its order disposing her Appeal held as follows;
“Respondents pointed out that under Section 139 of the Delhi Cooperative Societies Act, the appellant as a member of the Cooperative Society, viz. Sanghmitra CGHS Limited had all the rights to receive the information requested by her from the Cooperative Society including inspection of the records and, in case she did not get a response from the Cooperative Society, she was entitled to file appropriate appeals before the officers of the Registrar of the Cooperative Societies. It was the respondents' submission that the appellant should be advised that in view of the presence of Section 139 of the Delhi Cooperative Societies Act, it is no more possible to access information held by the Cooperative Societies through Section 2(f) of the RTI Act. The Cooperative Societies Act being a special Act took precedence over the RTI Act (which is a general Act) especially when the special Act itself provided to a bona-fide member of a Cooperative Society identical relief as provided under the RTI Act.”
“These appeals are clearly not maintainable because the Cooperative Societies are not public authorities to whom the RTI Act directly applies. The information held by such Societies is to be indirectly accessed under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act through a public authority, i.e. the Registrar of Cooperative Societies, who under the Delhi Cooperative Societies Act is competent to access information held by the Cooperative Societies”.
Decision of High Court
The High Court held that on comparison of Section 2(f) of the RTI Act and Section 139 of the Delhi Cooperative Societies Act, it is clear that the object of both is to provide information to an applicant. Some information can also be sought from a public authority under the RTI Act. The Society in question is a private body and not a public authority as defined under the RTI Act and is not obliged to furnish information. In this case it is the REGISTRAR who is a public authority as per Section 2(h) of the RTI Act as well as for the purpose of Section 2(f) would be the public authority from whom information could be accessed with respect to Cooperative Societies.
According to High Court as a public authority the Registrar is also duty bound to comply with the provisions of the RTI Act and is required to provide information as provided for under Section 2(f) of the Act subject to the limitations enumerated under Section 8 of the RTI Act.
Then the Bench examined the scope of Section 22 of the RTI Act and its applicability to the provisions of Section 139 of the DCS, Act. Justice Bhat who wrote the Judgment held that Section 22 of RTI Act declares all laws, bye-laws, rules etc. which are inconsistent with the provisions of the RTI Act shall be overridden by its provisions.
“The RTI Act is aimed at bringing within its ambit the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. This, however, in the Court’s opinion does not necessarily mean that any other legislature, which aims to ensure access to information with respect to a private body (as per the RTI Act), is overridden by Section 22. The answer will have to be in the negative. The RTI is with respect to Public Authorities. Section 139 makes a separate distinct provision with respect to transactions of a cooperative society. The applicability of the RTI Act does not exclude the operation of the DCS Act, insofar as it enables access to information that is possessed by a cooperative Society. The latter can clearly be sourced by the person concerned from the Society, in view of Section 139”
Finally the Court opined that.
“ The information which is in the possession of the Cooperative Society is accessible to its members and those interested, in Section 139 of the DCS Act. The absolute nature of this obligation to furnish information to those entitled to apply and receive is reinforced by the consequences which are spelt out in Section 139 (2). However, information which the Society may not possess, but pertaining to it, in the form of records with the Registrar of Cooperative Societies, have to be provided by the latter, under the RTI Act, as there is no doubt that such official - who discharges statutory functions- is a "public authority". However, the grounds of exemption spelt out under the RTI Act too would be attracted, wherever applicable”
The Court finally directed that the applications of the Petitioner shall be considered by the Registrar, to the extent the information is available with his office. It is also ordered that in regard to the information not available, the Registrar shall indicate clearly what material does not exist, in an order.
Read the Judgment here.