The government has proposed a new set of rules for seeking information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and has sought suggestions from the public by April 15.
The draft rules, notified by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), are aimed at replacing RTI rules of 2012.
The draft, titled "Framing RTI Rules, 2017 in supersession of RTI Rules, 2012 — comments regarding" has been placed on DoPT website for comments from public.
The draft has laid down nine suggestions for updating the rules for processing RTI applications, complaints and appeals.
The government has set a 500-word limit for an application and has recommended a higher fee for providing information in new draft rules.
The proposed rules recommend raising the prescribed fee to Rs 50 with a provision of providing first 20 copied pages free of cost inclusive of postal charges.
The draft rules not only make the information expensive but also aim to make online the process of complaint for denying information.
“The intention is clear. The government wants to make getting information difficult as the draft rules empower public authorities more than citizens,” RTI activist Commodore (Retd) Lokesh Batra said.
Batra also objected to the time given for filing suggestions.
"The time given is too less. There is no official press release in this regard as well. How will people know that something like is placed on website for them to give opinion," Batra told PTI.
A major proposal now allows the Central Information Commission (CIC) to convert a complaint into second appeal which would mean it can order the disclosure of information to an applicant who has come under complaint clause of the RTI Act which was not the case earlier.
"The Commission may in its discretion allow a prayer for any amendment of a complaint during the course of its hearing, including conversion of the complaint into second appeal, if available remedies have been exhausted, on a prayer made by the complainant," the draft rules state.
The Supreme Court had held in one of its orders that Section 18 of the RTI Act provides for complaint while Section 19 of the RTI Act provides mechanism of second appeal.
It had said that the CIC while hearing a plea under complaint clause cannot order disclosure of the information which can only be provided if the person is approaching it under second appeal or section 19 of the Act.
Another provision says that the proceedings before the Commission will abate in case of death of the appellant.
The new draft rules also allow the Commission to use its discretion for allowing withdrawal of appeal or a complaint if appellant requests but such requests cannot be entertained once the matter has been decided by it.
Some RTI activists have objected to such suggestions by the government in the past saying information seekers may be coerced by people with vested interests and may even be killed as the information against them cannot be ordered to be disclosed in such cases.
The rules also introduce provisions like providing a copy of complaint and appeal to the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) before approaching the CIC.
A proof in this regard will also be submitted to the Commission along with the complaint or appeal.
The applicants will have to declare that the matter submitted by them before the Commission has not been decided or pending before the Commission or any court.
The applicants can now file complaints within 135 days of filing the RTI application only. Any delay in filing the complaint will have to be accompanied with the request for condonation of delay.
If the RTI applicant does not know the name and address of the CPIO or the First Appellate authority in a government department, he will have to provide a copy of his complaint to the department before approaching the Commission.
The new proposed process asks the Commission to get replies from the CPIO within a specified time before issuing notices to them.
The Congress sharply reacted to the new draft rules and said the government has "formalized the process of subverting RTI."
"Ever since this Government has taken office there has been an attitude of active neglect toward the RTI. Not only are the RTI queries not answered, but even the appeals processes have been very shoddily treated. There've been non-formal attempts over 3yrs to scuttle RTI. Finally it seems NDA has formalized the process of subverting RTI," Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said.
"New draft rules put out by the Govt say if an RTI application is of more than 500 words, it can be rejected. There's been steep enhancement in RTI charges. What you were getting for a nominal cost, lets say Re1 per page of photocopy, has been doubled. Even the cost of postage, the cost of the reply will now have to be borne by the applicant," the former Union minister said.
He further said, "In other words, very surreptitiously the bar is being raised to make the RTI paradigm difficult for ordinary people to access. If there's handwritten appeal, not neatly typed in double space, it can be rejected. So you are imposing a cost on the poor and disenfranchised."