Saturday, June 02, 2018

CIC Pulls Up ICHR For Not Giving Access to Historical Manuscript

The Wire: New Delhi: Saturday, June 02, 2018.
The director of Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), who is also the council’s central public information officer, has been pulled up by the Central Information Commission for refusing to provide copies, sought under the Right to Information Act, of a manuscript submitted by historian Arjun Dev.
ICHR had said that the manuscript pertained to the Bengal riots and this information was “confidential and sensitive information”. However, the panel discovered that “the information sought pertained to issues relating to the draft manuscript relating to “Towards Freedom- Documents on India’s Freedom Struggle”, 1941,” and noted that “being a matter relating to India’s freedom struggle, the Commission finds no reason as to how the disclosure of information can prejudice/ affect anyone’s interest rather disclosure of information would serve the larger public interest.”
In his complaint, the appellant, Neeraj Sharma, had stated that he had sought information on ten points regarding the daily progress report on the manuscript submitted by Dev, including the date on which the submission reached the office, the period for which it stayed with the officer, action taken thereon, name and designation of officers supposed to take action on the submission, date by which the manuscript had to be printed and issues related thereto.
On not getting a response from the CPIO, Sharma had approached the first appellate authority. He was subsequently allowed inspection of the records on December 4, 2017. However, his request for copies of the records was turned down.
During the hearing in the CIC, Sharma asked for all the information to be disclosed and the imposition of a penalty on the CPIO for the delay, which he said amounted to “total disrespect and disregard to the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005”. He also charged that the public authority displayed a “very casual and careless approach” towards the implementation of the Act.
In his recent order directing the release of the information within 15 days, central information commissioner Bimal Julka refused to be drawn by the ICHR official’s stance that “as per their research funding rules, the identity of the experts was classified as confidential and sensitive information which could not be disclosed”.
ICHR felt the manuscript pertained to the Bengal riots of 1940s
Moreover, he also recorded that “it was conveyed that the manuscript regarding which the information was sought related to sensitive issue of Bengal Riots of 1941 and therefore, any further disclosure of information was not desirable.”
Julka said when the ICHR officials were asked whether the approval of the competent authority was obtained for non-disclosure of information, the CPIO had only submitted that “this was just a thought process in the organisation”.
In fact, he said that when specifically asked by the CIC if they had received any instructions or directions from the competent authority or if the Ministry of Home Affairs had objected to the disclosure of information, the ICHR officials had replied in the negative.
‘Onus on CPIO to prove that denial of information was justified’
The information commissioner observed that as per the provisions of Section 19 (5) of the RTI Act, 2005, in an appeal proceeding, the onus to prove that the denial of a request was justified is on the CPIO. He, however, added that neither the two officials who were present during the hearing as respondents nor the CPIO could “justify their position as to how the disclosure of information would be in contravention to any of the provisions enshrined under Section 8 of the RTI Act, 2005”.
Moreover, Julka also said that as per the provisions of Section 7 (8) (i) of the RTI Act, 2005, if a request for disclosure of information is rejected, the CPIO needs to communicate the reasons for it.
‘No reason for non-disclosure as matter pertains to freedom struggle’
The information commissioner further noted that “being a matter relating to India’s freedom struggle, the Commission finds no reason as to how the disclosure of information can prejudice/affect anyone’s interest rather disclosure of information would serve the larger public interest”.
To deny information under any of the exemptions mentioned under Section 8 (1) of the RTI Act, 2005, Julka said the respondent was “required to provide justification or establish the reason why such exemption was claimed”. In this regard, he referred to the decision of the Delhi high court in the matter of Deputy Commissioner of Police vs D.K. Sharma. The court had held that it was “inclined to concur with the view expressed by the CIC that in order to deny the information under the RTI Act the authority concerned would have to show a justification with reference to one of the specific clauses under Section 8 (1) of the RTI Act”.
ICHR told to familiarise officials with RTI Act
Upon hearing both sides, the information commissioner, apart from ordering the release of information, also cautioned ICHR officials to “exercise due care in future to ensure that correct and complete information is furnished timely to the RTI applicant(s) as per provisions of the Act failing which penal proceedings under Section 20 shall be initiated”.
The CIC also instructed ICHR to “convene periodic conferences/seminars to sensitise, familiarise and educate the concerned officials about the relevant provisions of the RTI Act, 2005 for the effective discharge of its duties and responsibilities”.
Note: An earlier version of this article said that the manuscript was about the Bengal riots of the 1940s. However, that is only the ICHR’s claim. The CIC has said the manuscript is about the freedom struggle.