If you think that the Right to Information Act (RTI) has secured access to information under the control of public authorities, try filing a query with the district administration.
In Lucknow, the officials, it appears, are still to come to terms with the idea of sharing information with the citizenry. In May, the administration received nearly 40 applications, all concerning arms license. After mulling the queries for over a fortnight, the officials in the arms section of the collectorate either rejected the applications, saying that the information was either unavailable or never gathered in the context in which it was sought or asked the applicants to come and collect the information themselves.
To cite an example, advocate US Tiwari asked the administration how many arms licenses were issued since independence till May 2013. Another applicant Avneesh Dixit, also an advocate, wanted to know about the total members of the rifle club and the total amount of money deposited in the account of the rifle club-sought from the members. The existing district magistrate has initiated submission of a premium amount ranging between Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 35,000 from any rifle owner seeking a license. The money was supposed to be used for the revival of the rifle club, which is still to see the light of the day.
Clearly, these queries concern public interest. But in reply, the administration told the first applicant that the information was not available and in the second case, the excuse was that rifle club account was not audited.
“An applicant Ghanshyam Tiwari had on May 29, asked how many criminals were given licenses while another Delhi-based applicant wanted to know how many licenses were issued by the collectorate on recommendations of ministers and other powerful persons,” an arms clerk said. He admitted that it was not possible to reply to such queries.
Puzzled with the sudden surge in RTI queries, particularly related to arms license procurement, the officials have even conveyed their inability to respond to higher authorities. They are of the opinion that those who are not issued licenses by the district administration are deliberately filing these ‘vexatious’ RTI applications to harass the employees.
“It is being done deliberately after the norms of issuing licenses were scrutinised. That is why some applications ask directly about district magistrate Anurag Yadav,” a clerk said. “We are five people here. What should we do, collect the data sought under RTI, or do our routine work?” he asked.
It is pertinent to mention here that in the absence of a provision in the Act banning applications which neither concern the public nor advocate any change, it is at the discretion of the public information officer concerned as to how to treat these applications. “The Act makes information officers liable to answer every application (under Sec 20 and Sec 20), however absurd it may be,” said Gyanendra Sharma, former information commissioner at the UP State Information Commission.