Friday, June 09, 2017

India's Patent Office Bans RTI Use By Staffers

Business world: New Delhi: Friday, June 09, 2017.
Thwarting the very purpose of the Right to Information law such as transparency and accountability in government offices, India’s Intellectual Property Office has formally restrained its officials from seeking departmental information through this provision.
The office of Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks, which functions under the Department of Industrial Policies and Promotion (DIPP) of Commerce Ministry of India, issued an internal circular cautioning its officers to desist from taking their personal grievances on other platforms like Ministry, grievance cell or using any other tool like RTI etc.
The IPO circular has, thereby, strictly restricts the officials from accessing information from apex authorities through RTI citing non-access to such information, without availing proper administrative remedy within the office. 
Right to Information Act, which was passed by the Parliament in 2005, is an act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities. The key purpose of this Act is to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.
“It has come to the notice of undersigned that few officials in this office are trying to bypass the administrative channel available to them in order to resolve their grievance and acquire information (which is otherwise accessible to the public) relating to general office procedures and facilities available to them, etc . Any personal grievance / incidence of non-access of information (not being exhaustive and frequent), shall be brought into the notice of immediate higher authority and Head of Office through proper channel, wherever required....” stated the office circular dated 18th May.
The IPO circular added that in case the matter is not resolved, same may be brought to the notice of undersigned (the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks). It has also warned that act of any official indulged in by-pass of proper channel/frivolous queries in a frequent manner, causing unnecessarily disproportionate diversion of the public resources of the office, shall be considered as an act in a discourteous manner, thereby, rendering him or her a candidate of unbecoming a government servant under Rule 3 (1) (iii) of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964 and liable for disciplinary action.
Government employees typically resort to RTI or such channels to access information, especially matters related to their grievances, complaints and other administration issues when these are denied by senior officers or superior offices within the department.  
RTI Act 2005, which is for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens and replaces the erstwhile Freedom of information Act, 2002. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen of India may request information from a "public authority" (a body of Government or "instrumentality of State") which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. The Act also requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally.
Although there could be reasons for IPO chief to stop misuse of the provision by its officials, a blanket ban, however, sets a bad precedent, say experts.
"This is a delicate issue that requires some balancing of competing concerns. No doubt, the CG may have had good reasons to initiate such a directive to all employees. And sometimes employees have been known to use redressal mechanisms to settle personal scores,” said Shamnad Basheer, former IP chair at National School of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and founder of SpicyIP, one of the most read IP blogs, which first brought out the contents of this circular to its readers.
He added that “At other times, however, an RTI option might be the only realistic option for an employee to secure justice. And this should never be thwarted at any cost. The middle ground would be in ensuring that RTI access is not thwarted, but that once it comes to light that an employee has availed of this mechanism with a spurious intent (backed up by evidence etc), appropriate disciplinary measures can be taken."
O P Gupta, Controller General of Patents. Designs and Trade Marks, could not be contacted immediately for his comments on this potentially controversial circular.