Understanding The Process Of Obtaining Information Through The Right To Information Act

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Index

  1. Introduction 
  2. What Is Right To Information 
  3. Evolution Of Right To Information Legislation In India
  4. Objectives Of The Right To Information Act, 2005
  5. Important Terms Under Section 2
  6. Responsibilities Of Public Authority Under Section 4
  7. Requesting Information Under The Right To Information Act, 2005
  8. Timely Response To Information Requests Under The Right To Information Act, 2005
  9. Exemptions From Disclosure Under The Right To Information Act, 2005
  10. Grounds For Rejection And Severability Under The Right To Information Act, 2005
  11. Handling Third-Party Information Requests Under The Right To Information Act, 2005
  12. Powers And Functions Of The Information Commission Under The Right To Information Act, 2005
  13. Appeal Process Under Section 19 Of The Right To Information Act, 2005
  14. Penalties And Disciplinary Actions Under Section 20 Of the RTI Act
  15. Conclusion 

Introduction 

Every Indian citizen enjoys the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression as per Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. This encompasses not just sharing information but also receiving it, as informed opinions stem from adequate information. Therefore, the right to access and seek information is inherently linked to the core of Article 19(1)(a). The Supreme Court of India has affirmed that citizens’ right to knowledge and information on public matters is a fundamental entitlement.

The cornerstone of democracy lies in a citizen’s right to question the government’s policies and actions. This necessitates access to information, enabling accountability. 

What Is Right To Information 

The Right to Information (RTI) Act facilitates crucial access, empowering citizens to actively engage in democracy beyond elections.

Evolution Of Right To Information Legislation In India

The initial central legislation concerning the right to information in India was the Freedom of Information Act, 2002, passed on December 4, 2002, although it wasn’t implemented. Subsequently, in 2004, the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government established a National Advisory Council (NAC) which recommended modifications to the Freedom of Information Act, 2002.

These amendments culminated in the enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005 on May 11th and 12th, 2005, by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, respectively. The Act received the President of India’s assent on June 15, 2005, and became effective on October 12, 2005.

Objectives Of The Right To Information Act, 2005

The goals of the RTI Act, 2005 are outlined as follows:

  1. Establishing a practical framework enabling citizens to access information held by public authorities.
  2. Fostering transparency and accountability in governmental operations and associated bodies.
  3. Instituting Information Commissions at state and national levels to execute the Act’s functions and powers.
  4. Nurturing an informed citizenry.
  5. Combating corruption.
  6. Defining exemptions to information disclosure, particularly when such disclosure might clash with other public interests, and balancing these interests while upholding democratic principles.

Important Terms Under Section 2

Section 2(a) of the Act defines the term “appropriate government” as the government related to a public authority involved in handling right to information matters. This authority is set up, formed, owned, overseen, or substantially funded by the Central Government, union territory administration, or State Governments.

Section 2(e) of the Act defines the term “competent authority” as the authority overseeing autonomous institutions operating under constitutional provisions. This authority holds the primary responsibility for enforcing the RTI Act within these institutions. Examples of competent authorities include the Speaker of Lok Sabha, Chairman of Rajya Sabha, Speaker of Legislative Assembly of a State/UT, Chairman of Legislative Council of a State, Chief Justice of India for the Supreme Court, Chief Justice of a High Court, President, Governor (as applicable) for other authorities established under the Constitution, and Administrators appointed under Article 239 of the Constitution.

Section 2(f) outlines the types of information accessible under the right to information, encompassing a wide range of materials in various formats. This includes records such as written details, maps, and drawings related to public authority actions, policies, or decisions. Documents, whether part of a record or standalone, containing specific subject details or public authority decisions, are also covered. Memos, emails, opinions, advice, and press releases related to official matters, as well as circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, and electronic data stored in any form, fall within the scope of accessible information. Additionally, information concerning private bodies obtainable by a public authority under prevailing laws is included.

Section 2(h) of the Act defines “public authority” as an entity or institution of self-governance, directly or indirectly linked to the government. Such an authority can have the following associations with the government:

  1. Established or constituted under the Constitution
  2. Created through an Act of Parliament
  3. Established by an Act of State Legislature
  4. Established or constituted by a notification or order issued by the appropriate government

Additionally, the definition of public authority encompasses:

  1. Any body owned, controlled, or significantly financed by the government
  2. Any NGO substantially financed, either directly or indirectly, by funds from the appropriate government.

As outlined in Section 2(i) of the Act, a record encompasses various forms of information including documents, manuscripts (original handwritten documents or drawings), files comprising connected papers on a specific subject, and electronic documents in forms like microfilm, microfiche, facsimile copies, or images. It also includes any material produced or generated through computers or other devices.

Section 2(j) of the Act defines the “right to information” as the entitlement to access information held by or under the control of any public authority as per the RTI Act. This right includes:

  1. Right of inspection: The ability to closely examine documents, works, and records without obtaining copies, solely for scrutiny purposes.
  2. Right of taking notes, extracts, etc.: The privilege to jot down important information from documents, including making original extracts or obtaining certified copies.
  3. Right to take certified samples of material: The right to acquire certified samples of materials purchased or utilised by the government.
  4. Right to obtain information in electronic mode: Access to information stored electronically, allowing citizens to obtain it in various electronic formats like tapes, video cassettes, diskettes, or as printouts.
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Responsibilities Of Public Authority Under Section 4

Section 4(1) outlines the obligations imposed on public authorities, which include the meticulous maintenance of records catalogued and indexed for efficient access. Public authorities are mandated to compute appropriate records and establish a network for nationwide access within a reasonable timeframe and resource availability.

Additionally, public authorities are required to publish specific details within 120 days of the Act’s enactment. These details encompass organisational structure, functions, duties, officer and employee powers and responsibilities, decision-making procedures, public representation arrangements in policy matters, employee directories, monthly salaries, agency budgets, subsidy program execution methods, electronic information details, citizen information access facilities, and Public Information Officer names and designations. Moreover, when making significant policy decisions affecting the public, public authorities must disclose all relevant information, and they must provide reasons for administrative or judicial decisions to affected parties.

Section 4(2) highlights the responsibility of public authorities to proactively provide information to the public regularly using diverse communication channels.

Regarding information dissemination, Section 4(3) emphasises the importance of widespread accessibility of information, ensuring ease of access for the public.

Furthermore, Section 4(4) specifies that the dissemination process must take into account factors such as cost-effectiveness, utilisation of local languages, and the most efficient communication method tailored to specific local areas.

Section 5 mandates every public authority to designate Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) and State Public Information Officers (SPIOs) within 100 days of the Act’s enactment, who are responsible for providing information as per requests under the Act. Additionally, Section 5(2) requires the appointment of Central Assistant Public Information Officers or State Assistant Public Information Officers at sub-divisional or sub-district levels. These assistant officers are tasked with receiving applications or appeals related to information requests under the Act and forwarding them to the appropriate authorities specified under Section 19(1), the Central Information Commission, or the State Information Commission.

Section 5(3) outlines the duties of Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) and State Public Information Officers (SPIOs), which include handling requests from individuals seeking information and offering reasonable assistance to those requesting information.

Requesting Information Under The Right To Information Act, 2005

Section 6 of the Act delineates the procedure for requesting information:

  1. Method of Request: Requests can be made in writing or through electronic means.
  2. Language: Requests can be made in English, Hindi, or the official language of the area where the application is submitted.
  3. Application Fee: A prescribed fee must accompany the application.
  4. Recipient: The application should be directed to the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) or State Public Information Officer (SPIO) of the relevant public authority, or their respective Assistant Officers.
  5. Application Contents: The applicant must specify the information sought in the application.

In cases where a written request is not feasible, the CPIO/SPIO must assist the applicant in converting their oral request into a written format, as stated in the proviso to Section 6(1). Furthermore, applicants are not required to provide reasons for their request or disclose personal details unless necessary for communication purposes, as per Section 6(2). If the requested information is under the purview of another public authority, Section 6(3) mandates the transferring of the application to the relevant authority within five days, with notification provided to the applicant.

Timely Response To Information Requests Under The Right To Information Act, 2005

Section 7(1) emphasises the prompt handling of information requests by Central and State Public Information Officers (CPIOs/SPIOs). Upon receiving a request, they have 30 days to either accept and provide the information (after receiving the prescribed fee) or reject the request, citing reasons outlined in Sections 8 and 9 of the Act.

In certain scenarios, an additional five days is permitted for response calculation:

  1. When the request is received through the Assistant Public Information Officer.
  2. When the request is transferred to another public authority. Furthermore, if the requested information pertains to the life and liberty of an individual, it must be provided within 48 hours of the request’s receipt.

Failure to respond within the 30-day timeframe is considered a refusal, as stipulated in Section 7(2) of the Act.

Section 7(3) of the Act addresses situations where an applicant is required to pay additional fees. It stipulates that if a decision is made to provide information upon payment of further fees reflecting the cost of providing the information, the CPIO/SPIO must notify the applicant. This notification should include details about the additional fees determined by the CPIO/SPIO, including the calculations used to arrive at the amount. It must also inform the applicant about their right to request a review of the decision regarding fees or access method. This includes providing details about the appellate authority, the time limit for review, and the review process.

Regarding access to information, Section 7(4) mandates that the CPIO/SPIO must assist individuals with sensory disabilities to access the information they seek. Section 7(5) specifies that applicants are required to pay a prescribed fee for access to information in printed or electronic formats, with the fee being reasonable as per the attached proviso. Additionally, individuals living below the poverty line are exempt from paying any fee. Section 7(6) states that if the public authority fails to provide information within the specified time limit, the applicant is entitled to access that information free of charge. Lastly, Section 7(7) requires the CPIO/SPIO to consider any representations made by a third party under Section 11 before making a decision regarding furnishing information or rejecting a request.

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Section 7(8) outlines the procedure for rejecting information requests. If a request is rejected, the CPIO/SPIO must communicate the following details to the applicant:

  1. Reasons for the rejection.
  2. Timeframe for filing an appeal against the rejection.
  3. Details of the appellate authority.

Regarding the form of information, Section 7(9) specifies that information requested under the Act should generally be provided in the form it is sought. However, there are exceptions where providing information in the requested form would excessively drain the public authority’s resources or endanger the safety or preservation of the record in question.

Exemptions From Disclosure Under The Right To Information Act, 2005

Section 8(1) delineates categories of information exempt from disclosure under the RTI Act, where there is no obligation to disclose such information to citizens. These exemptions include:

  1. Information prejudicially affecting India’s sovereignty, security, or foreign relations, or leading to incitement of an offence.
  2. Information expressly forbidden from publication by a Court or tribunal.
  3. Information that could amount to contempt of court or breach of parliamentary privilege.
  4. Information including trade secrets, commercial confidence, or intellectual property, unless disclosure is deemed necessary in the public interest.
  5. Information accessible within a fiduciary relationship, unless disclosure is necessary in the public interest.
  6. Information received in confidence from a foreign government.
  7. Information endangering life or physical safety, or identifying sources for law enforcement/security purposes.
  8. Information obstructing investigation, apprehension, or prosecution of offenders.

Despite provisions in the Official Secrets Act of 1923 or the exemptions outlined in Section 8(1), access to information may be granted if the public interest in disclosure outweighs harm to protected interests.

Grounds For Rejection And Severability Under The Right To Information Act, 2005

Section 9 of the Act enables a CPIO/SPIO to reject a request for information if providing such information would infringe upon the copyright of a person other than the State.

In cases where access to information is denied due to prohibition by the Act, Section 10 comes into play. This section allows access to be granted to the part of a record that does not contain exempt information and can be reasonably separated from the exempt part.

Section 10(2) specifies that if access is granted to a portion of a record, the CPIO/SPIO must notify the applicant about:

  1. The provision of only a part of the requested record, with exempt information severed.
  2. The reasons for the decision.
  3. The name and designation of the decision-maker.
  4. Details of any required fees.
  5. The applicant’s right to seek a review of the decision regarding non-disclosure, fees, or access form, along with information about the reviewing authority.

Handling Third-Party Information Requests Under The Right To Information Act, 2005

Section 11 of the Act outlines procedures for disclosing information related to third parties.

Under Section 11(1), a written notification must be sent to a third party within five days if the CPIO/SPIO intends to disclose information supplied by the third party and treated as confidential. This notice must inform the third party of the request, the intent to disclose, and invite them to submit whether the information should be disclosed.

The provision to Section 11(1) allows disclosure if public interest outweighs potential harm to the third party’s interests, except for trade or commercial secrets protected by law.

Section 11(2) grants the third party ten days to provide representations against disclosure.

According to Section 11(3), the CPIO/SPIO must decide on disclosure within 40 days if the third party has made representations. The decision must be communicated in writing to the third party, including information about their right to appeal.

Powers And Functions Of The Information Commission Under The Right To Information Act, 2005

Section 18 of the Act delineates the duties and powers of the Central Information Commission (CIC) or State Information Commission (SIC).

Under Section 18(1), the Commission is tasked with receiving and investigating complaints based on several grounds, including the inability to submit a request to the CPIO/SPIO due to non-appointment or refusal, denial of access to requested information, violation of time limits for information provision, unreasonable fees, provision of incomplete or misleading information, and other matters related to access to records.

Section 18(2) grants the Commission the power to initiate inquiries but specifies that it is not obligated to investigate every complaint. The CIC/SIC may commence an inquiry if it deems there are reasonable grounds to do so.

Section 18(3) confers upon the Central Information Commission (CIC) or State Information Commission (SIC) the powers akin to those vested in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, when inquiring into matters as outlined in Section 18. These powers encompass summoning individuals, compelling testimony under oath, demanding document production, conducting discovery and inspection, accepting evidence via affidavit, requisitioning public records, issuing summons for witness examination or document presentation, and any other matter prescribed under the Act.

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Additionally, as per Section 18(4), the CIC/SIC possesses the authority to summon and inspect any record applicable under the Act and under the control of a public authority. Notably, these records cannot be withheld from the Commission on any grounds.

Appeal Process Under Section 19 Of The Right To Information Act, 2005

Under Section 19(1) of the Act, individuals can file a first appeal on specified grounds:

  1. Non-receipt of a decision within the stipulated time frames as per Section 7(1) or 7(3)(a).
  2. Disagreement with the decision of the CPIO/SPIO.

The appeal must be submitted within 30 days from the end of the response period or upon receiving the CPIO/SPIO’s decision. However, if there is a valid reason for delay, the First Appellate Authority may accept the appeal even after this period.

Appeals are directed to the First Appellate Authority, who holds a higher rank than the CPIO/SPIO within each public authority.

This subsection pertains to appeals filed by third parties who have been affected by an adverse order under Section 11, wherein the CPIO/SPIO has decided to disclose third-party information. Third parties dissatisfied with such decisions can lodge an appeal within 30 days from the date of the order to the first appellate authority.

Regarding second appeals as outlined in Section 19(3), individuals can appeal to the Central Information Commission (CIC) or State Information Commission (SIC) against the decision made by the first appellate authority under Section 19(1). The appeal must be filed within 90 days from the date on which the decision should have been made or was received. However, the CIC/SIC may consider admitting an appeal even after 30 days if there is a valid reason for the delay, preventing the appellant from filing the appeal in time.

Where an appeal concerns information related to a third party, the respective Commission must provide a reasonable opportunity for that third party to be heard. This ensures fairness and allows the third party to present their perspective regarding the disclosure of their information.

Section 19(5) places the burden of proving that a denial of a request was justified squarely on the CPIO/SPIO who denied the request. This emphasises the responsibility of the public authority to justify any denial of information under the Act.

In terms of timeframes, Section 19(6) mandates that appeals under Section 19(1) or 19(2) must be resolved within 30 days of receipt. However, in exceptional circumstances, this period may be extended to a total of 45 days from the date of filing, provided there are valid reasons recorded in writing. Finally, Section 19(7) reinforces the supremacy of the Central Information Commission (CIC) or State Information Commission (SIC) by stating that their decisions shall be binding.

Under Section 19(8), the Central Information Commission (CIC) or State Information Commission (SIC) is empowered to issue various orders in its decisions. These orders may include directing public authorities to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act. This can entail granting access to information in a specific format upon request, appointing Public Information Officers (PIOs), publishing certain categories of information, implementing changes in record maintenance practices, providing training on right to information, submitting annual reports to the Commission as per Section 4(1)(b), awarding compensation to complainants for any losses suffered, imposing penalties as per the Act, or rejecting the application altogether.

Moreover, Section 19(9) mandates that the CIC/SIC must notify the complainant and the concerned public authority of its decision, including any right of appeal available to either party. This ensures transparency and provides clarity regarding the outcome of the appeal process.

Penalties And Disciplinary Actions Under Section 20 Of the RTI Act

Section 20 of the Right to Information Act grants the Central Information Commission (CIC) or State Information Commission (SIC) the authority to impose penalties on Public Information Officers (PIOs) who deliberately violate the Act’s provisions. Before deciding on penalties, the concerned PIO must be given a fair opportunity to present their case. The burden of proving that they acted reasonably and diligently rests solely on the PIO.

Under Section 20(1), penalties can be imposed for various violations such as refusing to accept an information request without reasonable cause, failing to provide information within the prescribed time limit, maliciously denying information requests, providing incorrect or misleading information, destroying requested information, or obstructing the information furnishing process. The penalty is set at Rs. 250 per day until the application is received or information is provided, with a maximum penalty cap of Rs. 25,000.

Section 20(2) addresses persistent defaults or failures by PIOs, including repeated refusals, delays, or malafide actions. In such cases, the Commission can recommend disciplinary actions against the erring PIO under the applicable service rules.

Conclusion 

The Right to Information Act, 2005 stands as a crucial legal framework enabling citizens to access information. It ensures prompt responses to citizens’ requests for government information. For public authorities under the Central Government, citizens can submit RTI applications through the official portal https://rtionline.gov.in/, managed by the Department of Personnel and Training under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances, and Pensions. Similarly, for public authorities under State Governments, citizens can file RTI applications through the respective state’s RTI portal or website.

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