The city's Chetana Education Trust, which was slapped by the State Information Commission (SIC) on December 30 with a Rs 25,000 fine for not revealing details of its spending, donations and seat allocations in response to a Right to Information application, has said it will challenge the commission's order in the Bombay High Court.
This is the first time that a decision under the 16-month-old RTI law will be challenged in a higher court, and could well be a sign of the future, as citizens increasingly deploy RTI to probe public affairs. For example, in Delhi, several orders of the Central Information Commission are being challenged in the Supreme Court.
Information Commissioner Suresh Joshi, the final appealing authority for a citizen, ordered Chetana to give details asked by trustee Shankar Adivarekar within 15 days, and fined them for delaying responding to his application for a year; the law mandates giving information within a month. The trust is headed by ex-education minister Madhukarrao Chaudhuri and runs Bandra's Chetana College and Management Institute.
Joshi's judgement was landmark, since Maharashtra's educational trusts, often headed by politicians, have indulged in a host of malpractices including giving seats for donations and graft, profiteering through illegal fee structures, violating faculty and facility norms, and running unrecognised courses.
But the trust says it would rather pay the penalty than give information. Premanand Rupavate, the Secretary of the Chetana (Education) Trust and its public information officer said, "Joshi has not taken into account our arguments, namely that RTI does not cover Chetna Trust, and that the applicant is a trustee himself who already has the information available to him in the capacity of a fiduciary relationship."
RTI covers all public authorities as well as bodies who get substantial government funding – Chetana has been registered under the Bombay Public Trusts Act, while its teaching staff receives salaries from the government.
Shekhar Singh of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information said that as the sunshine law scored wins, its decisions were bound to be challenged in a higher court.
"It just shows that case laws under RTI will have to be settled sooner than later. If the commission's order is legally sound, and stands in the court, then others will be discouraged. As long as filing a case does not become a delaying tactic, it is good if courts settle a few matters, and dispose off frivolous litigation so that the ground is cleared for RTI to function smoothly."