The Madras High Court has issued notice on a PIL seeking various directions for improving the right to information (RTI) regime and for facilitating RTI applications and hearings related to the pandemic.
A Division Bench of Justice M.M Sundresh and Justice R. Hemalatha issued notices on the petition filed by independent journalist Saurav Das through Advocate M V Swaroop to the Union Government, Tamil Nadu State Govt, Central Information Commission (CIC) and Tamil Nadu State Information Commission (TNSIC) seeking their response on the matter.
Cases relating to the pandemic in Information Commissions
The first interim prayer in the PIL seeks direction for immediate constitution of a "COVID-special bench" in both the Central and State Information Commission to hear all cases relating to the pandemic and dispose them of, preferably within 15 days.
The petition points out that since the average waiting time for a case to be heard by the CIC and TNSIC is almost 2 years, several important pandemic related RTI appeals are not being heard on priority by these Commissions and they may turn infructuous if the normal waiting time is followed. More importantly, pandemic related cases filed under 'threat to life and liberty' (for which information must be furnished within 48 hours by the Public Information Officer of a public authority) are also not being heard by these Commissions on priority. "In the event such PIO does not release the information sought for, there is no efficacious remedy available for the applicant to receive such information within such time that may be suitable for him to use it and make decisions", the PIL contends.
"Time is of the essence under the RTI Act and even more so during the current COVID-19 pandemic, as any delay in the information sought for, could have a detrimental impact on public health and the lives of people", the PIL submits.
CIC's order to create dedicated e-mail ID to receive 'life and liberty' RTIs
On 22 April 2020, Information Commissioner Vanaja N. Sarna of the CIC had directed the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) to create a unique email ID for every public authority in order to facilitate receiving of 'life and liberty' RTIs, especially in view of the pandemic when postal services were hit. On 10 June 2020, this author had filed an RTI application with the DoPT seeking details of action taken on this order amongst other things. However, instead of giving full details, the PIO- Under Secretary Rakesh Kumar in a 5-worded cryptic reply said that "the matter has been noted".
Therefore the second interim prayer in the PIL seeks direction to the DoPT to operationalise this CIC order. This will help people file RTIs that fall under the category of 'life and liberty' as no such separate system for filing of 'life and liberty' RTIs exists in the online RTI lodging portal.
Guidelines for fixing time-frame for disposal of cases in Commissions
The first main prayer to the Court is for an order to DoPT (for CIC) and Tamil Nadu Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department (for TNSIC) to issue guidelines (after consultations with civil society members) fixing timeframe for disposal of cases in both the Commissions. The Supreme Court in the matter of Anjali Bhardwaj vs. Union of India of 2019 had observed that "the RTI Act is a time bound legislation and prescribes statutory timelines for providing information and that Central/State Information Commissions ought to decide the appeals/complaints within the shortest time possible, which should normally be a few months from date of service of complaint or appeal to the opposite side".
The Madras High Court has asked the counsels for the respondents to get back with "instructions on the feasibility of fixing the time limit".
Large pendency of cases defeats the very purpose of the RTI Act where time is of the essence. Information must be provided when required the most. It is almost cruel to keep people waiting for 2 years to provide information on their ration cards, passports, and government paper work or even for scrutinising government actions that impact them during the time of filing the RTI. The situation is worse in TNSIC as there is no mechanism to track cases and unlike the 'first-come-first-serve' system followed by the CIC to hear cases, there is no such system in the TNSIC.
Guidelines for fixing time-frames for disposal of cases pertaining to 'life and liberty'
The second main prayer seeks an order from the Court to the DoPT and TN Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department to issue guidelines fixing time-frames for urgent and timely disposal of life and liberty first appeals before First Appellate Authorities (FAA) of a public authority and second appeals/complaints before the Information Commissions.
If an applicant files an RTI application under Section 7(1) 'threat to life and liberty', the PIO is bound to provide the information within 48 hours. However, the Act gives PIO the liberty to determine whether such an application in-fact constitutes threat to one's life and liberty or not. If the PIO wrongly decides that it does not constitute threat to life and liberty or does not bother to reply with his determination, "there is no efficacious remedy for the applicant to get access to such information", the PIL states. In normal matters, the FAA has an upper-limit of 45 days to decide first appeals but the RTI Act does not prescribe any separate, tighter deadline, like in the case of PIO, to dispose of first appeals relating to life and liberty. The Commissions too, are not prescribed any fixed deadline to dispose of such cases that are urgent and time-sensitive.
The Court has posted the matter for further hearing on 30 September, 2020.