The Pune bench of the State Information Commission has been directing second appeals of RTI applicants back to the appellate authorities instead disposing of the applications on its own through hearings.
Strongly objecting to the referring of applications to the lower level of the grievance redressal mechanism, RTI activists called it ‘arbitrary’ and in ‘stark contravention’ of basic tenets of the Act.
M H Shah, State Information Commissioner for Pune bench, however, defended it saying he was employing it only when the appellate authorities were totally unresponsive to RTI rules that spell out their duties.
“Section 19(8) of the RTI Act empowers the Information Commissioner to take any such steps as may be necessary to secure compliance with provisions of the Act. To this effect, we have been asking appellate authorities, who were unresponsive to applicants in first place and simply forwarded applications to divisional bench, to do their part,” he told Newsline on Thursday.
As per procedure followed in the appeals and complaints under RTI Act, the Information Commission receives second appeals against the orders of appellate officers under Section 19 of the Act. The Information Commissioner disposes of second appeals. The applicant, the Public Information Officer or Assistant Public Information Officer and Appellate Officer (where required) are called for hearing of the second appeal and their say is considered by the Information Commissioner while deciding the case.
Commenting on the issue, civic activist Vivek Velankar said Shah was misinterpreting the Act and it would hurt the interest of RTI applicants. “What if the applicants do not get satisfactory information after being referred back to the appellate authorities? The Act has no provisions at all on this aspect and also on what would be time-frame for appellate authorities to respond when approached a second time,” he said.
Another activist Vijay Kumbhar said the Information Commissioner should invoke Section 19(8) of the Act and ensure effective disposal of applications, instead of shouldering the responsibility of another.
The Pune bench of the Commission had, by end of December 2012, a total of 5,097 second appeal applications pending. An average of around one-and-a-half-year is required for single application to come for hearing before the Commission.
An activist said, “What if an RTI applicant, after being directed back to appellate authorities, does not get the desired information and seeks to approach the Commission again? Will it not be that his number would be that of pendency plus one and he has to wait for a year again for his turn to put his side before the Commission?”
To these apprehensions, Shah said the Commission could consider such applicants separately. “The new process evolved by us is proving effective. In Pune division, around 50 per cent of second appeals is disposed of without hearing before the Commission,” said Shah, who also holds additional charge of Mumbai division.