MUMBAI: Even as we witness an alarming trend where RTI replies by various government departments are subsequently denied outright, a former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) has underlined the fact that providing wrong information to any applicant can invite a penalty and disciplinary action.
"Any Information Officer who wilfully provides wrong or misleading information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act to any application, can be penalised Rs 25,000 by the Commissioner, plus disciplinary action can be recommended against him," former CIC Shailesh Gandhi told IANS.
However, the ex-CIC said there may be cases in which the errors are genuine, without mala fide intention, in which case the concerned department must immediately provide an explanation for the lapse as well as the correct information.
Gandhi's comments come at a time when RTI replies are subsequently denied outright -- with at least five such instances that have made news nationally in the recent past.
Last November, Western Railway informed activist Anil Galgali that the Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail sector was running at 40 percent below capacity.
The news caught national attention as this is the same route on which the Narendra Modi government's prestigious Bullet Train project is planned, raising serious question marks on its viability.
After a furore over the RTI revelation, Indian Railways and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal personally denied the information, and later claimed that the sector was not only running at 100 per cent capacity but was also profitable.
"By such tactics, fear is instilled among the Information Officers, who try to dodge RTI queries, unsure whether the genuine information provided would be later denied if it proves controversial," Galgali told IANS.
In March 2018, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Eknath Khadse raised a stink when he publicised RTI replies that said over 319,000 rats were killed within a week in Mantralaya, the Maharashtra government headquarters.
Though the RTI replies hinted at a scam, the government did a somersault to say that they were "misinterpreted" by the former minister Khadse and actually referred to the quantity of zinc phosphide (anti-rodent) tablets needed to eliminate the rat population.
"The original documents are available in the matter, how can the government deny it? It clearly means they are trying to hide something. If they cannot accept their own documents, then better scrap the RTI Act," Khadse told IANS.
The same month (March), Mumbai Congress President Sanjay Nirupam created a sensation when he furnished RTI replies showing the Maharashtra Chief Minister's Office guzzled nearly 18,600 cups of tea daily.
"Later, the government completely reneged on its own RTI replies. This puts tremendous psychological pressure on the poor Information Officer trying to do an honest job. It seems the present BJP government at the Centre and states want to completely destroy the RTI Act," Nirupam told IANS.
In a very recent instance, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) denied its own RTI replies to activist Chandra Shekhar Gaur of Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh, pertaining to huge arrears of over Rs 50,000 crore all over India and "write-offs" of over Rs 3,002 crore, claiming these figures were given "erroneously".
"For my single line query, I was barraged with nearly 1,100 replies, right from Principal Commissionerates to block-level officers. Most letters came by registered Speed Post costing over Rs 50 each, meaning they have spent more than Rs 50,000 of taxpayers' money," Gaur told IANS.
He said that his query seeking a consolidated national figure of the arrears and write-offs online, via email, was tossed by the CBDT to all state and local offices, "which is a sheer waste of resources and harassment of the RTI activist".
In an IANS expose on indiscriminate purchase of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in April, the Election Commission of India (ECI) contended that the information was provided wrongly, but never came forth with a written explanation.
"I am aware of how government departments try to trample RTI. So I took the precaution of first filing a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) before the Bombay High Court based on the RTI replies received so far. Now, the court will decide whether the ECI's replies are true or not," said a grim RTI activist Manoranjan S. Roy, who toiled on the EVMs issue for over a year.
On his part, former CIC Gandhi said there are avenues like appeal or even the courts, but "the tragedy is most commissioners and the courts are anti-RTI" and the whole exercise can be very time-consuming.
"RTI is in a regressionary stage, taken very casually by the government, the Information Commissioners and the courts. It is up to the RTI activists and the media to pursue it relentlessly, continue to name and shame the authorities," Gandhi suggested.
A Neemuch-based RTI activist, Jinendra Surana, realised the futility of appeals the hard way. "An appeal of mine is pending with the CBDT since over three years... They kick it from one department to another and nobody bothers to dispose it off."