Sunday, April 09, 2017

Bouquets & brickbats for proposed changes in RTI Act

Times of India: Aurangabad: Sunday, April 09, 2017.
An enabling provision in the Right To Information (RTI) Act 2005 to deal with non-compliance of orders and directives of the Central Information Commission (CIC) and posting of non-compliance cases involving public interest before larger benches of the CIC.
These are some of the major changes proposed in the transparency legislation by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT). The DoPT published the draft rules on its website on March 31, inviting views and suggestions latest by April 15 through email only.
The proposed changes have evoked mixed reactions from the RTI community, who have objected to certain problematic aspects of the draft rules. They have opposed the allowing for the withdrawal and abatement of appeals and mandatory requirement of an RTI application in complaint cases.
Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator with Access to Information Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said while 60-65% of the draft RTI rules are a repeat of the content of the 2012 rules, some new aspects deserve appreciation as they clarify the manner of implementation of key provisions of the transparency legislation.
"Provisions for dealing with non-compliance of the orders and directives of the CIC by public authorities were missing in the RTI rules. Non-compliance is increasingly becoming a major problem," he said, hailing another enabling provision that non-compliance cases involving public interest could be referred before larger benches of the CIC.
Evolving procedure for filing complaints under Section 18(1) of the RTI Act and making it mandatory for the public authority to serve an advance copy of its counter to an appeal or complaint on the appellant/complainant are some positives of the draft rules, Nayak said.
Shedding light on some of the objectionable rules proposed, RTI experts said allowing for the withdrawal and abatement of appeals was undesirable.
The draft rule to this effect reads 'the Commission (CIC) may in its discretion allow a prayer for withdrawal of an appeal if such a prayer is made by the appellant on an application made in writing duly signed or during hearing. However, no such prayer may be entertained by the Commission after the matter has been finally heard or a decision or order has been pronounced by the Commission.. The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant.
Former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said draft DoPT rules need to have more clarity about what a public information officer (PIO) should do when the application is over 500 words. "No application shall be rejected only on the ground that it contains more than 500 words. There should be clarity on what a PIO should do when the application is over 500 words. Perhaps, PIO can read the first 500 words and respond," he said.
A draft rule to this effect states that an application shall ordinarily not contain more than 500 words, excluding annexures, containing address of the Central Public Information Officer and that of the applicant.
Gandhi added that the draft rules should have provision for facilitating digital payment in line with the government objective of cashless economy. "The draft rules talks about digital payment if facility for receiving fees through electronic means is available. This should not be the case and all public authorities must accept digital payment," he said.
The proposed mandatory requirement of an RTI application in complaint cases too has not gone down well with experts. Despite providing separate procedures for submitting appeals and complaints, the draft rules do not seem to have understood the difference between these two remedies, Nayak said.
Among other provisions, no time limit for serving notice of hearings on appellants and complainants has received criticism. While the draft rules introduce time limit that complainants must observe for filing complaints, there are no time limits for ensuring that notice of a hearing in an appeal or complaint reaches the citizen well in advance.