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Disregarding provisions of the RTI Act, the government's currency printing press reimbursed from the state exchequer the amount paid for a penalty imposed on one of its officers by the Central Information Commission, shifting the burden of what was a personal liability to taxpayers.
The case pertains to the Security Printing and Minting Corporation of India Limited which reimbursed Rs 25,000 - the maximum penalty levied by the CIC - to the officer from government funds as "legal and professional charges".
"It is like cocking a snook at the law. On one side they deduct the penalty and deposit it in the government's account and then reimburse it to the erring employee. If an official violates traffic lights, should taxpayers foot the bill," RTI activist C J Karira asked.
According to the RTI Act, a penalty imposed on a central public information officer of a public authority is a personal liability on him or her and has to be paid by the person from his or her salary and deposited into the government's account.
The Act says if the Central Information Commission, the top appellate body in RTI matters, is convinced that information has been delayed without reasonable grounds, it shall impose a penalty of Rs 250 per day from the day information became due till it was furnished, with a maximum penalty of Rs 25,000.
The guidelines issued by the Department of Personnel and Training, the nodal ministry for RTI affairs, through order number No. 1/412009-1R dated October 5, 2009, said the penalty imposed by the CIC was to be paid by the central public information officer of the public authority.
The case pertains to a chief manager of the government's 'mini ratna' company who in October 2015 was fined Rs 25,000 by Information Commissioner Manjula Prasher as he had failed to furnish information in a timely manner.
The information was provided only after 16 months of the RTI application being filed after repeated orders of the Commission and a penalty being imposed. It is mandatory to provide information in 30 days.
Then Mumbai Mint Staff Union president A Q Shaikh had filed an RTI application in September 2014, seeking details about honorarium payments for additional coin production in 2013-14.
He was not given any information nor was his first appeal before a senior officer of the Corporation heard.
On his plea, Prasher had issued a show cause notice to the officer seeking an explanation.
After going through the arguments of both sides, she imposed a penalty of Rs 25,000 to be deducted from his salary in five monthly installments.
Recently, RTI applicant Satish Sherkhane sought the file notes of the case file. This application showed that after deducting the penalty from the officer's salary, the corporation made grounds for its reimbursement, claiming the information was voluminous in nature.
It was also noted on the file that this (reimbursement) would "boost the morale of all executives who are discharging official duties pertaining to compliance with devotion and dedication".
The officials ordered that the request for reimbursement of Rs 25,000 -- the penalty amount -- be considered and shown as "legal and professional charges".
Former Chief Information Commissioner and ex-DOPT secretary A N Tiwari, who handled personnel matters of government officials, told PTI that such a reimbursement was "illegal".
"The penalty imposed on a CPIO under the RTI Act is personal in nature to act as a deterrent. It has to be paid by the concerned officer from his own pocket and deposited in the government's account. If the offices starts reimbursing it from the government's account, what is the need of penalty," Tiwari asked.
Former Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra agreed with Tiwari but added that there was no remedy for this in the RTI act as proceedings were completed after the penalty was deposited.
"The audit of the public authority must take note of it... If at all they wanted to compensate (the officer), they could have made an appeal to all the employees to contribute voluntarily but that should have been done unofficially," he said.
Activist Venkatesh Nayak who works with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said a penalty was a personal burden which could not be shifted to tax payers.