The CIC has rebuked the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal ministry of the RTI Act, for denying records related to appointment of information commissioners and framing RTI rules and has asked the secretary to look into its "adverse findings".
Information Commissioner Divya Prakash Sinha agreed with RTI applicant Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd) that denial of the information by the DoPT "stifles the very letter and spirit" of the law.
Sinha lambasted the ministry for wrongly invoking Section 8(1)(i) to deny Batra information related to appointments of information commissioners and framing of RTI rules by the government.
"It is ironic even further that the information that has been denied in the instant case pertaining to the appointment of information commissioners under the RTI Act, who are ordained with the statutory authority of securing the regime of transparency," he said.
The commission admonishes the then Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) for invoking Section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act without assessing its applicability and the present CPIO is also warned against mindlessly endorsing the reply, Sinha said.
He directed that this order be placed before the secretary of the ministry to take note of "adverse findings" of the commission.
Batra had filed two separate RTI applications seeking the information, but was refused on the grounds that these were cabinet papers which cannot be disclosed before a final decision is arrived at.
However, the ministry had been disclosing records related to appointments of information commissioners during the UPA era even when the process was underway.
After he was denied the information, Batra had approached the commission, the highest adjudicating body for RTI matters.The commission issued two separate orders after listening to him and the CPIO of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT).
The CPIO, the officer responsible for answering the RTI applications, said the response was given by a different officer who was handling the position before him.
He also submitted that the process of appointment of the chief information commissioner and information commissioner was going on at the time.
The officer said that the documents sought by the appellant were to be submitted to the Search Committee (Committee of Secretaries) and subsequently to a committee chaired by the prime minister and consisting of leader of opposition and a Union cabinet minister.
The ministry also refused to disclose the file related to framing of 2017 rules of the RTI, saying it was "under process".
Rejecting the arguments in both cases, Sinha said the submissions of the CPIO appear incoherent and do not convey any substantial justification for invoking Section 8(1)(i) of RTI Act.
"The conduct of the then CPIO as well as the present CPIO reflects on their sheer evasiveness and non-application of mind in dealing with the instant RTI application," he noted.
Sinha agreed with Batra that "this kind of conduct amounts to stonewalling RTI applications and stifling the very letter and spirit of RTI Act weighs in".
"Complainant has rightly pointed out that such mindless application of exemptions of RTI Act to deny information by the CPIO(s) of DoPT casts serious aspersions on the commitment of the nodal agency of RTI to the tenets of probity and transparency," Sinha said.
By resorting to such unwarranted opacity, the DoPT is setting a bad example for other public authorities and at the same time is discrediting its own footing as the nodal agency for implementation of RTI Act, he said.