The Central Information Commission has decided a complaint registered under Section 18 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (as amended from time to time and as in force) in the year 2018 against the Central Public Information Officer, University of Delhi vide its order dated 23.04.2020 . The complaint which registered on 14.08.2018 was initially listed for 30.03.2020 however due to witness of unprecedented pandemic in the country was finally heard on 22.04.2020 at 12.10 p.m. through audio conference involving the Central Information Commissioner Ms. Vanaja N. Sarna, the complainant Sh. Mohit Kumar Gupta, Advocate and respondent CPIO MS. Meenakshi Sahay, Deputy Registrar, University of Delhi.
The complainant, while acting in his professional capacity as a counsel for the 12 minor and 4 major girl students, belonging from different parts of the country whose admissions under sports quota were arbitrarily cancelled/withdrawn by the Principal in the capacity of Chairperson, Admissions Committee, Daulat Ram College in the year 2018, faced the issue of filing an application dated 06.08.2018 under Section 7(1) i.e. 'Life or Liberty (to be responded within 48 hours of its receipt)' of Right to Information Act, 2005 (as amended from time to time and in force) i.e. through the online portal of DOPT https://rtionline.gov.in/ to the public authority 'University of Delhi' seeking information on different counts pertaining to their cancellation of admission and issues related thereof, as the said portal did not provide the facility for the same specifically as a separate category and only allowed the RTI Application to be filed under Section 6, RTI Act, 2005 (i.e. NOT under 'Life or Liberty') per se and therefore it compelled the complainant to make a physical application which got delayed nearly by 4 precious hours, with hesitation on the part of the Diary/Dispatch clerk of University of Delhi to record the time along with date as acknowledgement of receipt of such application.
That thereafter, the response as was received therein from University of Delhi whereby the entire set of information counts stood transferred to Public Information Officer, University of Delhi vide letter dated 07.08.2018, although certain points did relate to departments and branches of University of Delhi, was attempted to be challenged and appealed by filing of First Appeal to the First Appellate Authority of public authority 'University of Delhi' through email id 'email@example.com' (the official email address of Central Public Information Officer of University of Delhi as publically disclosed through suo-moto disclosures on the website www.du.ac.in as per Section 4 of the RTI Act, 2005), in accordance with Section 5(2) of the RTI Act, 2005 (i.e. Provided that where an application for information or appeal is given to a Central Assistant Public Information Officer or a State Assistant Public Information Officer, as the case may be, a period of five days shall be added in computing the period for response specified under sub‑section (1) of section 7), however as per the previous reply of the CPIO, University of Delhi in the year 2017 in response to other first appeals, the same was disapproved as a self-decided measure, in the following words:
The email ID firstname.lastname@example.org is not for filling RTI application or First Appeal. It is, hereby, informed that the First Appeal can be filed on the link https://rtionline.gov.in, wherein the online RTI application was filed. Alternatively, it can be filed through an application addressed to First Appellate Authority with relevant details, which can be submitted by hand or sent through post.
The online portal of DOPT https://rtionline.gov.in/ could not have been proceeded with since the portal would ask the applicant/appellant/complainant to wait for expiry of 30 days from the date of filing of RTI Application before filing such First Appeal, as the programming was not attuned to requests in accordance with Section 7(1) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
In this regard, a representation was moved before the Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India through first email dated 21.06.2017 and a reminder email dated 28.07.2017 detailing the underlying issue in good detail with the prayer to:
1. make provision for filing RTI u/s 7(1), RTI Act, 2005 [Life or Liberty] on the RTI Online Portal.
2. make provision for filing RTI First Appeal under Section 19(1), RTI Act, 2005 [i.r.o. Life or Liberty] on the RTI Online Portal.
Thereafter, an application under Section 6, RTI Act, 2005 was preferred with DOPT on 06.07.2017 seeking status of the representation dated 21.06.2017 besides other points of information, in response whereof, the DOPT through letter dated 31.08.2017 informed the applicant that:
"The matter has been examined and NIC has been requested to place the provisions of Section 7(i) of the RTI Act, 2005 for providing information related to life or liberty of a person within forty–eight hours of the receipt of the request as directive for CPIOs of the Public Authorities in the User Manual of the CPIO module of the RTI online portal."
However, the reply was found to be partly perfunctory and practically meaningless since it is imperative upon public authorities to make available to each citizen, a platform to file 'Life and Liberty' RTI Applications and also First Appeals thereafter. Therefore, the prayers are accordingly made in the complaint seeking enquiry and for passing appropriate recommendations by the hon'ble commission:
A. Direct an inquiry under Section 18, RTI Act, 2005 and pass recommendations under Section 25(4) thereof.
B. Imposition of exemplary costs/penalty upon the respondents and award of costs as compensation for undue delays, false claims made under reply to representation, non‐action upon bonafide promise and mental harassment along with expenses incurred on pursuing Complaint.
C. Direct the respondents to make available specific provision on RTI Online portal to file Applications and Appeals under 'Life and Liberty' i.e. Section 7(1) of RTI Act, 2005.
D. Direct all public authorities in India to provide acknowledgement/receiving of RTI Applications by mention of Date, Time, Signature and Seal of the Office/Officer.
E. Direct all public authorities in India through their First Appellate Authorities to dispose off all the First Appeals relating to RTI Applications filed under Section 7(1) RTI Act as expeditiously as possible.
F. any other orders, directions and instructions (by whatever name called) in the interest of justice.
The hearing started with the first tele-call was made at around 12.01 p.m. by the concerned official/consultant attached to the Hon'ble Central Information Commissioner to the declared mobile number of the complainant, and thereafter the respondent was patched in over the call and straightly thereafter the hon'ble commissioner joined in, with the concerned official/consultant remaining quiet throughout and the hon'ble commissioner herself moderated the hearing and remained in command. The hon'ble commission sought details as to how the application pertained to life or liberty and whether there were any specific averments made in the application itself signifying the reliability of the issue with Life or Liberty. The complainant submitted that the Principal in the capacity of Chairperson, Admissions Committee, Daulat Ram College unilaterally cancelled the admissions granted under Sports Quota to 12 minor and 4 major girl students, belonging from different parts of the country and certified to be amongst the best of sports players as found in the sports trails conducted through the University Sports Council, however the said factum could not be reduced in the application specifically, however the complainant was raising a pertinent core issue in relation to filing of applications and appeals through online as well as offline mode. The complainant submitted that since the RTI portal managed by DOPT/NIC do not permit filing of RTI Applications specifically under Section 7(1) of the RTI Act, 2005 nor does it allow filing of First Appeals in relation such applications before expiry of 30 days, there happens to witness a void/vaccum whereby citizens are suffering a lot in general and the respondent stands to remain a proforma respondent in the matter. The hon'ble commissioner sought the response of the respondent who in turn agreed to the submissions that there is no role of the university as such in respect of the issues rasied. Therefore, the hon'ble commissioner informed the parties that the commission shall examine the matter and shall pass appropriate orders on the aspect as the issues relate to larger public interest and shall aid the notion of Access to Information.
In view of the above observations, the Commission observed that the concern raised a much larger issue and access to information must be a priority. All the public authorities need to understand the essence of life and liberty.
Sec 7(1) reads as follows:
"(1) Subject to the proviso to sub‑ section (2) of section 5 or the proviso to sub-section (3) of section 6, the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be on receipt of a request under section 6 shall, as expeditiously as possible, and in any case within thirty days of the receipt of the request, either provide the information on payment of such fee as may be prescribed or reject the request for any of the reasons specified in sections 8 and 9: Provided that where the information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the same shall be provided within forty‑ eight hours of the receipt of the request."
The CPIO has the liberty to consider the matter as a normal RTI or a matter of life and liberty, and the issue of flooding of RTI applications, in the criteria of life and liberty cannot be overlooked in case the option of Sec 7(1) application is available online without restriction. In view of this an advisory is issued u/s 25(5) of the RTI Act to the Secretary DoPT to evolve a system after coordinating with the Director General, NIC in the spirit of the RTI Act and take immediate steps towards providing a platform for implementation of Sec 7(1) of the RTI Act. It is also important to mention here that the complainant had made the DoPT and CIC also respondents however, the same cannot be taken into cognizance u/s 18 of the Act, as the gap in the RTI portal is a policy decision and penal action against the CPIO is definitely not the solution. It is relevant to mention here that regarding the present RTI also the complainant during hearing had not pressed for any action against the CPIO, University of Delhi. The present complaint is therefore considered as an issue solely regarding implementation of Sec 7(1) of the RTI Act in the RTI portal.
A report on the action taken on the advisory may be sent to the Commission by the Secretary, DoPT within 7 days from the date of withdrawal of lockdown. Due to the on going pandemic of coronavirus in the country and the prevalent lock down, the Commission finds it appropriate to highlight the issue of Sec 7(1) implementation by citizens more so, when postal receipt of RTI applications are minimal, in such situations all public authorities should encourage RTI applications through e-mail in case of life and liberty matter. A unique e-mail id can be created by the CPIOs in this regard and reflected in their respective website. A method of online acceptance of RTI fees also has be thought of in this regard. In so far as other normal RTIs are concerned the RTI portal can be used. The Deputy Registrar is directed to circulate this order widely to the public authorities related to the Registry.
The author is an advocate at High Court of Delhi and District Courts-Delhi NCR. He primarily practices in the areas of Access to Justice, Access to Information (RTI), Child Rights, Education and Consumer Laws, Criminal Laws and engages in public policy matters. He can be reached at https://www.blackrobeslegal.com