By not levying penalty on erring RTI handling officials where it is needed, the Information Commissioners are causing an estimated loss of Rs 290 crore to the exchequer, a study into working of transparency panels claimed today.
The Right to Information Act states that a penalty of Rs 250 per day (maximum of Rs 25,000) will be imposed on a public information officer (PIO) in his personal capacity if the officer does not adhere to provisions of the transparency law.
According to a number of orders of high courts, imposing penalty on public information officers is not a choice with the Information Commissioner if it reasonably proven that the PIO has not followed the provisions of the law.
The analysis of Research, Assessment and Analysis Group (RaaG) and Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), looking into orders of the CIC and State Information Commissions across the country, found that Information Commissioners were not levying penalties on erring public information officers causing a loss of Rs 290 crore to the exchequer.
"In terms of amount of penalty foregone by ICs, the analysis of 1,469 orders showed that by foregoing penalties in cases where it was imposable, ICs caused a loss of more than Rs 2.13 crore. Extrapolating this nationally, an estimated loss of Rs 290 crore is being caused annually by ICs not imposing penalties," it said.
It found that during the cases heard, an average of 59 per cent orders recorded one or more violations listed in Section 20 of the RTI Act, based on which the IC should have triggered the process of penalty imposition.
"Of these 59 per cent cases, only in 24 per cent cases ICs issued notices to the PIOs asking them to show cause why penalty should not be levied...Finally penalty was imposed in only 1.3 per cent of the cases in which it was imposable," the study claimed.
The researchers claimed non-imposition of penalty has many serious implications as it sends a message that violation of the law will not invite any adverse consequences.
"This destroys the basic framework of incentives and disincentives built into the RTI law and promotes a culture of impunity," they said.
The study found that in several cases, even after recording a violation of the RTI Act, the IC let off the PIO with a warning or, during a show cause hearing, accepted an apology from the PIO and did not levy a penalty.
"These directions are without a legal basis as once the IC has recorded a violation, the IC must proceed with the penalty process," it said.
The researches found that PIOs are increasingly insisting that applicants come and search for the information themselves, even if they live in some distant town or village, and even if the information they want is accurately and specifically indicated, and not scattered.
They said non-imposition of penalties is threatening the very viability of the information regime in India.
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