Moneylife: Pune: Saturday, May 13, 2017.
The prime objective of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is to bring in transparency and thereby root out corruption. However, the Maharashtra State Information Commission office at Nashik has the dubious distinction of its desk officer seeking a bribe of Rs15,000 to dispose of an appeal in favour of the appellant, with an assurance that there would be no penalty against her school.
The complainant in this case was a headmistress of a school in Dhule who was slapped with a Rs25,000 penalty by the Nashik Information Commissioner for not providing information under RTI, in a 2015 case. Ravindra S Sonar, the Desk Officer at the Commission, demanded a bribe of Rs15,000 from the headmistress to settle the issue by disposing of the appeal in her favour and not levying the penalty. Finally, he agreed for Rs10,000. The headmistress approached the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB). ACB officers laid a trap on 7 May 2017 at the entrance of the Nashik Information Commission office, where the headmistress would hand over the bribe to Sonar. Sonar was arrested by the police while accepting the bribe.
While RTI activists across Maharashtra are agitated over the issue, no stern action against Sonar has been taken and he continues to be the Desk Officer at the Nashik Information Commission. RTI activists feel that the very arm of transparency and the last hope of citizens is under threat, as this case could be just the beginning.
Vijay Kumbhar, a leading RTI activist from Pune, says, “Inaction by the State government in not taking stern action immediately after ACB nabbed Sonar, highlights the double standard of the Chief Minister, as his rhetoric time and again to weed out corruption comes a cropper by this inaction. Also, the state government has never been serious about providing good quality staff to information commissions – generally deadwood are posted here. Similarly, several retired bureaucrats with tainted records have adorned the role of Information Commissioners. So, how can one expect a corruption-free information commission?”
Indeed, this incident is a blot on the reputation of information commissions.
Another leading RTI activist, Major General Sudhir Jatar (retd), feels that this must be happening in many cases, where Information Commissioners do not fine defaulters.
Mumbai based RTI Activist Afzal Mohammed rues, “It is indeed a sorry state of affairs that an esteemed institution like the Information Commission, which is supposed to deliver truth to the common man, gets trapped in this fashion. I personally believe there are a few rotten eggs in all baskets, but we cannot generalise.”
According to Karnataka-based RTI activist N Vikram Simha, this incident is unfortunate but it is believed it happens also in the Karnataka Information Commission. “It is unfortunate that Maharashtra, which is a leading state in pioneering RTI, should be so tainted,” he says.
RTI activist Manoj Pai says, “Most offices of Information Commissioners do not have any sanctioned staff. The Commission has to make do with staff from other departments on deputation. It is believed that all such Information Commission offices, across the country, are a kind of dumping ground for unwanted or inefficient staff. Some staff get themselves posted there to escape punishment for pending cases against them in their parent department. The list is long. Unless improvement is done in the quality of staff in the information commissions, this sorry state of affairs will continue.”
Section 15 (6) of the RTI Act, which deals with State Commissions, states:
“The State Government shall provide the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners with such officers and employees as may be necessary for the efficient performance of their functions under this Act, and the salaries and allowances payable to and the terms and conditions of service of the officers and other employees appointed for the purpose of this Act shall be such as may be prescribed.”
However, this is time and again violated.
So, besides the huge list of pending appeals, corruption now is another factor that is denying the common man his right to seek information.
Bhaskar Prabhu, Convener, Mahiti Adhikar Manch, has called for an investigation by all commissioners on such practices. He says "The recent incident of a desk clerk of the Nasik bench of SIC accepting a bribe to reduce the penalty is very deplorable. It calls for an Investigation by all Commissioners about the practices being followed in their offices as to how desk officers can waive or reduce penalties, as this will put into question the credibility of the orders passed and also raise doubts about the possible involvement of the IC in such arrangements. This also raises the issue of non-compliance of orders in cases where penalties are imposed. As there is no serious follow up, there are cases where the PIO has retired without the recovery of the penalty and the enquiries thereafter are just manipulated.''