Those safeguarding your right to information are now daggers drawn over their own rights. In a letter written to Punjab chief information commissioner Swaran Singh Channi, state information commissioner Surinder Awasthi has accused the former of “allocating most important departments to himself and being extra-generous in granting prayers of bureaucrats and police officials”.
Channi retired as Punjab home secretary before his appointment to the information panel while Awasthi is a former journalist. The letter, a copy of which is with the HT, alleges that Channi has been “emboldening” public information officers (PIOs) and complainants to get favourable decisions by appealing for transfer of case to another bench. “The CIC being first among equals is the master of the roster and free to allocate cases under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. But sending for files for perusal while cases are under progress and are at the penultimate stage of adjudication and transferring them to other benches amounts to gross interference in the functioning of the commissioners for which the CIC has no mandate under the statute,” adds the letter.
What led to face-off
The case which has led to the face-off pertains to state commissioner Awasthi issuing a show-cause notice to SAS Nagar SSP Gurpreet Singh Bhullar (SSP cum public information officer) for “concealing” information sought by a Chandigarh resident, Krishan Kumar Singla, claiming that a false FIR was registered against him by the police in “connivance” with a builder on the basis of forged papers. Singla had knocked the doors of the commission saying the information provided in response to his application by the SAS Nagar SSP did not contain those pages.
Later, the requisite information was traced to the police files by the director, Bureau of Investigation, and given to the applicant. The response of Bhullar to the show-cause notice was taken on record on June 17 and the next date of hearing was fixed for July 14. But before the formal orders could be put on the commission’s website, Bhullar moved the CIC for transfer of the case to another bench.
His request said, “From the conversation that took place before the bench, the applicant could gauge that the bench nurses some personal bias against him and his family and he won’t get justice.”
Channi, through an order dated July 9, said the case be transferred “in the interest of justice” to another division bench and the order be placed on the commission’s website. He subsequently wrote to the deputy registrar to get the case file transferred from Awasthi. But the latter has dug in his heels claiming in his letter that the CIC had no power to transfer cases from one bench to another on the basis of “wild and concocted” allegations of bias or apprehension of injustice.
“Since your orders are unjust, there is no need to comply with them and I have not handed over the file. One is at a loss to understand the undue haste shown by the CIC in the case by throwing all conventions and precedents to the winds,” the letter states.
The letter also questions the working of the CIC. It says his regular orders are not put on the website for weeks and are sent to the parties late. “However, in this case, you have shown remarkable swiftness and said that your orders be put on the website immediately,” it says.
Awasthi, when contacted, said he had written the letter, but refused to comment further. Channi did not respond to the calls and messages sent to him.