#Maharashtra Undertrials get #RTI Relief #goodnews #prisonerights


political-prisoner

Maharashtra CIC asks authorities to publish info of under trials who completed 50% of their maximum prison term

Thousands of under trials, who have completed 50% of their maximum prison term, would get a major relief thanks to the activism of Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner

In a significant order, the Maharashtra state chief information commission (SCIC) has directed prison authorities to display details of under trials who have completed over 50% of the maximum prison term they are liable for. Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner (CIC) had filed the appeal before the SCIC under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

 

“This will facilitate the prisoners and other activists to get release of such under trials and should go a long way in giving relief to people who were denied their freedom illegally. This order will be applicable in Maharashtra and I hope RTI activists will get such orders issued in all the states,” said Mr Gandhi.

 

The SCIC passed the order in fulfilment of the Prison department’s obligation under Section 4 (1) (b) of the RTI Act. The Commissioner used his powers under Section 19 (8) of the RTI Act and has ordered that this information will have to be displayed on thewebsite and on the notice boards of the prisons before 12 May 2013.

 

Following refusal by the Public Information Officer (PIO) and First Appellate Authority (FAA) to provide information about under trials in prisons in Maharashtra without any valid reasons, Mr Gandhi had filed his second appeal before the State Chief Information Commissioner.

 

In his second appeal, Mr Gandhi had also requested the State CIC, to direct the PIO to provide the information, penalise the PIO as per provisions of the RTI Act and reprimand the FAA for a casual approach in rejecting a citizen’s fundamental right.

 

A similar query by Mr Gandhi, around six years ago had led to the release of release of some under trials by the Bombay High Court. In his additional plea before the SCIC, Mr Gandhi said, “Whereas six years back the prison authorities had provided the information without any excuses, the PIO this time directed me to approach 43 different prisons. The First Appellate Authority did a faux pas by claiming exemptions under Section 8 (1) (b), (g) (h) and (j) without even attempting to justify how these would apply. I am sorry, but it appears that in the prison department in Maharashtra there is an unfortunate carelessness and regression in adherence and respect for RTI.”

 

Earlier in February, the union home ministry told states and Union Territories that under Section 436A of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), an under trial prisoner completing half of the maximum period of imprisonment should be released by the court on his personal bond with or without sureties, with the exception of those involved in heinous crimes.

 

According to statistics provided by National Crime Records Bureau, as of December 2011, there were 2.41 lakh or 64.7% under trial prisoners out of total 3.32 lakh jail inmates across India. The occupancy rate across all prisons in the country was 112.1% or 3.72 lakh inmates against a capacity of 3.32 jail inmates, the data said.

 

Information that cannot be denied to Parliament cannot be denied to you and me… but does it happen? #RTI


 

VINITA DESHMUKH | 31/01/2013 12:15 PM |  , Moneylife.com

Does this provision in Section 8 wherein, despite exemptions you have the right to information if it is of larger public interest being correctly interpreted by Courts? A study thinks otherwise

Notwithstanding Section 8 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act under which you are denied the right to certain information, there is a provision which states that, every citizen has the right to get that information which our elected representatives, have access to. It reads thus, “Provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”

 

However, it has been observed in an expert study, conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) that the judiciary has been inconsistent in application of this provision and therefore “does not provide clarity of interpretation of this crucial provision of the RTI Act.’’

 

Sometimes, the judiciary applies it to the entire Section 8 (1) which should be the case according to the CHRI’s analysis but many a time in its judgment, the judiciary restricts this provision only to Section 8 (1)(j) which relates to protection of personal information. Such varied interpretation which is diluting the power of this provision says the study, would have adverse repercussions for citizens, if this trend continues in the court of law.

 

Interestingly, even the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), Government of India in its guidelines to public authorities, Public Information Officers (PIOs) and First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) at the Central and State level for implementing the RTI Act, directed them to follow this provision by stating that:  “The Act gives the citizens a right to information at par with the Members of Parliament (MPs) and the Members of the State Legislatures (MLAs). According to the Act, information which cannot be denied to Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.’’

 

However, many PIOs and FAAs continue to decline information and the matter goes to information commissioners who often order disclosure of information. However, petitioners seek legal intervention and it is here that the provision is not used in its true spirit, as per the study.

 

Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator, Access to Information programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Imitative (CHRI) conducted the study to highlight how the provision is being narrowly used. States Nayak, “In 18 judgments interpreting the provision, this is far from convincing. We have chosen one such issue for analysis where despite the existence of more than 15 judgments, the jurisprudence does not provide clarity of interpretation of this crucial provision of the RTI Act.  Settlement of access disputes in the High Courts has not always conformed to the doctrine of precedent.”

 

Nayak observes that, “Eight High Courts have interpreted the scope and application of the proviso under Section 8(1) varyingly. Starting with the Bombay High Court, in 2007, five High Courts (Bombay, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Madras and Patna) have interpreted this proviso in six cases as being applicable only to clause (j) of Section 8(1), namely, the exemption protecting personal information of an individual from disclosure. Three High Courts (Calcutta, Kerala and Punjab and Haryana) have in ten cases interpreted this proviso as applying to all exemption clauses listed in Section 8(1). In at least two High Courts (Bombay and Delhi) single‐judge and Division Benches have held contrary views indicating the lack of crystallisation of judicial precedent, regarding the interpretation of the scope and application of this proviso.’’

 

Section 8 (of the RTI Act) deals with exemptions to the right to information.  Nayak points out that:

•  Sub‐Section (1) lists out the specific exemptions to disclosure –namely, information that an applicant may not claim as a matter of right

•  Sub‐Section (2) provides for the disclosure of even exempt information when public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.

• Sub‐Section (3) limits the operation of seven out of the ten exemptions up to 20 years for a given set of records. The exemptions relating to national security, foreign relations with foreign Governments, Parliamentary and Legislative privilege and Cabinet documents apply for an indefinite period of time.

•  A proviso is inscribed at the bottom of Section 8(1) which states that… Provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”

 

The study highlights several judgments which have interpreted Section 8 (1) in different modes. In most of these cases, the High Courts have upheld the orders of information commissioners but the judgment is not based on a comprehensive look at this provision.  This study aims to provide insight into this discrepancy. Concludes Nayak, “We hope that in an appropriate case the true meaning of the proviso underlying Section 8(1) is interpreted by the courts with due regard to legislative intent and the drafting history of the RTI Act.’’

 

Following are a few examples:

 

Case 1: A member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for committing contempt of Supreme Court’s orders during his tenure as Minister in the Government of Maharashtra. He spent 21 days of his jail term in a hospital in Mumbai under the pretext of being treated for various illnesses.

 

A citizen sought medical reports of his treatment, under RTI, in order to ascertain why the MLA had spent most of the duration of his sentence in an air‐conditioned hospital. The Petitioner objected to the disclosure of his medical records claiming that such action would cause invasion of his right to privacy. The matter escalated to the State Information Commission which ordered disclosure in the larger public interest.

 

The Petitioner (the MLA) challenged the order of disclosure on various grounds includingthe right to privacy and the requirement of confidentiality of patient‐related information under the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations 2002.

 

A two‐judge Bench of the Bombay High Court upheld the order of disclosure of the Petitioner’s medical records in the larger public interest. (Mr Surupsingh Hrya Naik v/s State of Maharashtra Through Additional Secretary, General Administration Deptt. And Others, Bombay High Court [Writ Petition No. 1750 of 2007] decision date: 23/03/2007)

 

CHRI’s analysis: “The Court relied upon the judgement of a single‐judge Bench in an earlier dispute relating to access to information under the Goa Right to Information Act, 1997 (Goa RTI Act) to hold that the proviso underlying Section 8(1) applied only to clause (j)… The main cause in the Surupsingh Naik case was about an individual’s right to privacy in relation to his medical records. In our opinion inquiring into Parliament’s intent behind placing the proviso under Section 8(1) in the light of the Court’s earlier pronouncement was necessary before determining its scope and application. Instead the ratio of the Court in the Panaji Municipal Council case was applied mechanically without regard to the reasoning that informed it. In view of this glaring contradiction the Court’s reading of the import and application of the proviso underlying Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, deserves to be reviewed.’’

 

Case 2: An Applicant sought information about the appointment, posting, transfer and promotion of clerical staff employed by the Canara Bank (the Bank) in Ernakulam district of Kerala during the period 2002‐2006. The Bank denied access on various grounds. When the matter escalated to the Central Information Commission (CIC), it ordered that the information be disclosed. The Bank challenged this order before the Kerala High Court claiming the protection of Section 8(1)(e)‐ when information is available to a person in his fiduciary relationship‐ and Section 8(1)(j)‐ when disclosure of personal information has no relationship to any public activity or interest or if disclosure would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual. A single‐judge Bench of the Court rejected both contentions and upheld the order of the Central Information Commission. (Canara Bank vs the Central Information Commissioner and Another, Kerala High Court [Writ Petition (Civil) 9988 of 2007, decision date: 11/07/2007]7 2.1)

 

CHRI’s analysis: The Court independently held that the proviso applied to the whole of Section 8(1) and not merely to clause (j) of that Section. More importantly, the proviso to the section qualifies the section by stating that information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.

 

Case 3: A student sought access to his answer sheets in a Bachelor’s Degree examination conducted by the University of Calcutta. The PIO rejected the request without invoking any of the exemptions provided in Section 8 of the RTI Act. He merely stated, in an undated letter, that the University had taken a decision not to permit inspection of evaluated answer scripts under the RTI Act.

 

The matter escalated to the High Court where the University cited a decision of the CIC which had ruled in an earlier case that where Boards and Universities conducting public examinations had evolved a robust system of evaluation and, if, by their own rules, prohibited disclosure of evaluated answer‐sheets or where such disclosure would result in rendering the system unworkable in practice, a citizen could not seek disclosure of the answer‐sheets. The University also contended that answer scripts did not fall within the definition of information under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act and that disclosure of the evaluated answer scripts would endanger the lives of the examiners. The University contended further that the Supreme Court had in earlier decisions refused to order disclosure of such documents, so Section 8(1)(b) of the RTI Act would apply. A single‐judge Bench of the Court rejected these contentions in a well reasoned judgement and ordered the evaluated answer sheets to be disclosed. (Pritam Rooj vs University of Calcutta, Calcutta High Court [Writ Petition No. 22176 of 2007], decision date: 28/03/2008.)

 

CHRI’s Analysis: …The Court also took notice of the need for protecting the privacy of individuals. However the Court held that the proviso underlying Section 8(1) applied to the whole of that Section…The proviso at the foot of Clause (j) appears to cover the entirety of Section 8(1), notwithstanding the view taken by the Division Bench of the Bombay High Court. The manner in which the exceptions to the rule have been carved out in Section 8 and the proviso which appears to govern all the cases covered by Section 8(1) of the said Act, makes the exemption section exhaustive. [emphasis supplied]…That the Court rejected the finding of a larger Bench of another High Court without supplying a reasoned justification is problematic, particularly when both parties had used the ratio to support their contention..

 

 

Are information commissioners killing the RTI Act?


 

VINITA DESHMUKH | 09/01/2013 Moneylife 

Information commissions are increasingly being lenient in penalising Public Information Officers (PIOs) for not providing information that they should, or being absent at hearings at the information commission. If so, are the information commissioners making PIOs and Appellate Authorities unaccountable?

Pune-based RTI (Right to Information) activist Vijay Kumbhar has triggered off a controversy through his column in the Marathi daily Pudhari that despite information commissioners being empowered to penalise Public Information Officers (PIOs), they do not do so even if they do not provide information to the applicant or remain absent for hearing at the information commission. Kumbhar states, “information commissioners are responsible for the worrying trend of government employees not being serious about the RTI anymore as they are often not held accountable.”

 

He cites two recent decisions of State Information Commissioners in Maharashtra on New Year’s Day, as examples. In the first decision, the applicant who had filed a RTI in July 2011 did not get the required reply and the First Appellate Authority (FAA) did not bother to conduct any hearing. This compelled the applicant to file second appeal with the information commission.

 

However, when the matter was heard at the state information commission, the commissioner merely ordered that information be given within a specific period by the PIO but he did not levy any penalty on the PIO or question the absence of both the PIO and FAA. Says Kumbhar, “in this case, the PIO or FAA did not bother about the RTIapplication or appeal filed before them. They even did not have the courtesy to attend the hearing of an appeal before the information commission. But the Commission in its order has not dealt with some basic questions like, what was the information the applicant had sought for? What were the reasons behind not furnishing the information by the PIO? Why didn’t the appellate authority conduct hearing on the first appeal? Why was the PIO and the appellate authority not present for the hearing before the information commission?” The least the information commissioner could have done, says Kumbhar is to issue a show-cause notice as to why they remained absent.

 

In the second case, says Kumbhar, the applicant did not receive the information that he had asked for from the PIO but the FAA dismissed his appeal by stating that the required information was provided to him by the PIO and that too,10 months after the applicant had filed his first appeal. During the second appeal hearing, the information commissioner did not go into details as to what information was asked for by the applicant? In such a case, the information commissioner has the power to impose fine on the PIO and reprimand the FAA for conducting the hearing after 10 long months but they were not pulled up. If the information commissioners are so lenient, then why should PIOs bother about applications they receive under RTI?

 

So, are information commissioners advertently or inadvertently killing the power of the RTI Act? Moneylife asked a cross-section of RTI activists:

 

RTI activist Maj Gen SCN Jatar (retd)

Information Commissioners cannot afford to be lax:  Kumbhar’s observations set out in reality how RTI commissioners are set to kill RTI. They do not realise that such decisions are taken as examples of superficiality and laxity in penalising errant PIOs. PIOs are apt to then follow the same methods again and again. The basic criteria that should govern good judgments are a) They should be well-reasoned so that these can be cited in future judgments and ii) they should give a clear message to the errant PIOs that avoiding or evading giving information, which should be in public domain, will not be tolerated. The two cases quoted by Kumbhar do not meet both the above criteria.

 

Former Central Information Commissioner and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi

Faster disposal of cases and reasonable threat of penalty required:  Most Information Commissioners use the penalty provision as if it was a death penalty to be imposed in the rarest of cases. I do not see any problem with who attends the hearing. The Commissioners should give orders for information irrespective of whether the PIO attends or not. The hearing is an opportunity to present one’s views or argue on required matters. If the appellant or PIO does not attend, they may not want the opportunity of hearing. To believe that when either side is not present, a Commissioner must rule in favour of one who is present does not appear correct or desirable.

 

I had levied 521 penalties totalling Rs.92 lakh in the 20,400 cases which I decided in three years and nine months.  The rest of the Central Information Commissioners collectively imposed penalties in about 330 cases in the Commission and had decided about 80,000 cases. There is no doubt that there is a link of penalty imposition with compliance of the law. If cases are decided fast, and there is a fear of penalties, the PIOs and First appellate authorities become more alert and try to meet the requirements of the law. The total cases received by the Central Commission rose by about 50% in a two year period from 2009 to 2011. The cases for Municipal Corporation of Delhi—which I handled throughout my tenure rose by only 15%. This indicates that faster disposal and a reasonable threat of penalties would get better compliance of the law.

 

RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal

Each order of Information commission should be comprehensive: It is usually observed that generally penalties are not imposed by Information Commissioners thereby making Public Information Officers (PIOs) lethargic towards complying with provisions of the RTI Act. There should be a practice whereby each order of Information Commissions may carry all the relevant dates like filing a RTI petition, reply of PIO, filing first appeal and of appeal-order. There should be auto-calculation of penalty in each verdict of Information Commissions making penal-provisions under Section 20 of the RTI Act mandatory rather than discretionary as at present. Reasons for waiving or reducing applicable penalty should be specifically mentioned in verdicts of Information Commissions. Information Commissions should maintain record of penalties imposed. Non-payment of penalties in specified time should be reported once in a month to Cabinet Secretary/Chief Secretary who should be duty-bound to initiate disciplinary action against defaulting officers apart from taking steps to recover penalty-amounts from salary/pension payable.

 

RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd)

Applicants should be innovative, interactive with PIOs:  Every applicant must realise that it is only after the RTI Act that citizens have become participative in governance. RTI has given us a chance to be an integral part of public accountability so we should not take an adverse stance against PIOs as far as possible. Every RTI applicant should make untiring efforts not to take the case up to the Information commission level as he or she would face inordinate delays, even up to two years. I use innovative methods to interact with the PIOs to extract information in case they hesitate to provide it. Today, I have developed good relations with many public authorities and they sometimes call me for suggestions or advice. Also, after the 2G scam it has been observed that every single reply under RTI at least in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) goes to the top bureaucrat so what is the use of blaming or penalising PIOs who are at the mercy of their bosses? Also, in the information commissions, it is the bureaucrats who create more hurdles than the information commissioners themselves.

 

Researcher and RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak

Public Authorities should take implementation of RTI Act seriously: I agree that to make government employees take RTI seriously PIOs should be penalised but that is just one of the solutions. Penalty cannot be the only deterrent as much as vigilance by higher authorities can be. It is the responsibility of public authorities to clearly push for policy of transparency and that should be visible in action and not by merely issuing paper orders. Serious implementation of RTI cannot be only a PIO’s headache. The top brass of every public authority should regularly monitor and be vigilant about transparency. Mechanisms to check it should work efficiently and should be given top priority. Targets should be set for accountability. Every office has a Monthly Monitoring Report (MMR). It is also called the Monthly Progressive Implementation Calendar in Karnataka. It requires reporting physical and financial progress to superiors who in turn give guidance on the basis of the report. There should also be scrutiny at the highest level, which is legislature. Such professional monitoring has not been seen for RTI. It is only when the government employees know that someone is seriously watching over them, that everyone down the line will take RTI seriously. Perhaps some incentives like increased funding or an award to the Public Authority which implements RTI diligently could help.

 

‘Substantially’ funded NGOs to make info public under RTI Act


Ashwani Sharma : Shimla, IE, Sat Dec 08 2012,
In a landmark judgement having wider implications on government-funded NGOs and organisations run on public contributions, the State Information Commission (SIC) on Friday ruled that all “substantially” financed NGOs (receiving over Rs 1 crore from state or government grants) are public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and must make their annual ‘income and expenditures’ public.
In the Commission’s order, passed by a two-member bench of Chief Information Commissioner Bhim Sen and Information Commissioner K D Batish, Himachal Pradesh Voluntary Health Association (HPVHA) was declared a public authority under RTI and directed to appoint its public information officer (PIO) within 10 days.
“As per the provisions of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Act 1971, HPVHA is a public authority under the RTI Act as it is being substantially financed by the government and is eligible for audit by the CAG. The association is directed to designate an official as the PIO within 10 days from the receipt of the order”, said the order.
The order was passed in a complaint by one Deepak Sharma, who was denied information by HPVHA as it asserted it was not covered under the RTI Act. The Commission analysed the funding details of the the organization, which was over Rs 1.22 crore during 2008-2009. It claimed that the organisation had been getting substantial aid from the state government and thus cannot be granted exemptions from RTI.
In its order, the commission also stated that in cases where the state gives not so substantial grants (Rs 25 lakh or less) to NGOs, the state or a government agency will be appointed as public authority, which will be required to provide information.
It also added that NGOs that have been raising funds from public contributions should voluntarily place maximum information regarding its activities on the web, which should include its Constitution, bylaws, rules and regulations, its annual income and expenditure and nature of works undertaken or completed.
“If an NGO is not substantially financed by the government and also raises funds by collections from public contribution and it performs functions of a public nature that are ordinarily performed by the government or its agency, it is desirable that the NGO voluntarily place maximum information regarding its activities on its website,” the order said.
The HPHVA has to provide the details within a month.

 

Intent can be reason for denying information to applicant


English: Adivasi woman and child, Chhattisgarh...

Intent can be reason for denying information to applicant

Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly hikes application fee to Rs 500, could also reject request for information

Prakhar Jain
New Delhi

In a move that is clearly against the letter and spirit of Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly will now consider an applicant’s intent before providing information. The Assembly could even reject the application if it is convinced that it has been made with mala fide intent. This clearly goes against the Act, which says that an applicant requesting for information shall not be required to give any reason.

The Assembly, which had issued a notification to this effect last month, also hiked the fee for an RTI application from Rs 10 to Rs 500. Besides, the applicant will have to pay Rs 15 per copy of any document instead of the standard fee of Rs 2 charged across the country.

Devendra Verma, Secretary, Legislative Assembly, explains, “Earlier, there were no (specific) rules for the Legislative Assembly. While framing rules, we adopted from Uttar Pradesh”. The intent clause has been derived, he says, from the Preamble of the RTI Act.

Dharam Lal Kaushik, Speaker of the house, defends the notification saying that information regarding questions raised by Assembly members is still provided at Rs 1 per copy. Higher fee would apply only to information sought about the Assembly, he says.

Activists who have fought a long battle for introduction of the RTI Act are appalled. “Imagine a person who buys a kilo of ration for Rs 5 per kg. He/she will have to sacrifice the budget for 100 kg of ration to just file an RTI application. It goes against the spirit of the Act,” says Shekhar Singh, whose NGO National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) has been instrumental in introducing the RTI Act. The NGO, which has termed the fee hike arbitrary and harsh, will issue a press note on the matter.

Shailesh Gandhi, Central Information Commissioner, couldn’t agree more. “Bad practices set precedents easily. This is disappointing. The intent clause is disrespectful of the law. The RTI Act mentions a reasonable fee and Rs 500 is not reasonable. These (legislative) bodies just don’t want to provide information,” he told TEHELKA. Gandhi has even shot off letters to the Chief Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Speaker asking them to maintain the earlier fee amounts.

This is not the first time that such a step has been initiated in the state. In 2009, the government limited the word count to 150 and number of subjects to one for every RTI application. The ‘one subject per application’ rule in turn was adopted by the Madhya Pradesh Assembly in 2010.

Nikhil Dey of NCPRI says that “restricting the subject to just one is illegal as the RTI Act clearly provides for even partial transfer of application to other public authorities if all the information is not available with one department”.

Prateek Pandey, RTI activist from Chhattisgarh Citizen Initiative, recalls his experience. “Once, I asked the ex-State Information Commissioner (SIC) to define ‘subject’ and he just smiled. If the SIC can’t answer that, how will a Public Information Officer? Everyone interprets it in his own way,” he says.

The Chhattisgarh Assembly has been feeling the heat of several RTI applications of late. An Information Commissioner of the state recently had ruled against the “Speaker’s privilege” to deny information in the case of an applicant seeking audit reports of accounts of the house and RTI applications received by it. Many legislators have also been in line of fire due to information obtained under RTI applications last year which revealed them receiving gifts like microwave ovens, washing machines, etc. bought in violation of rules by various state departments.

The way ahead is either to accept the Assembly’s decision or resort to legal means. According to Singh, confrontation can be avoided. He gives the example of Manipur, which had taken a similar decision on RTI applications. However, when activists wrote to the government expressing concerns, the application fee was reduced.

Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
prakhar@tehelka.com

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