Should a government department spend Rs 27 to get an RTI applicant to pay a fee of Rs 8?
Yes, said chief information commissioner RK Mathur in a controversial decision this week, overruling a “common sense” decision delivered by his predecessor, Satyananda Mishra.
The CIC was hearing an appeal where Right to Information (RTI) applicant Subhash Chandra Agrawal had questioned the logic of the Supreme Court spending Rs 27 in postal charges to ask him to pay Rs 8 for four sheets of paper.
The rules require government departments to make citizens pay Rs 2 for every page of information received under the Right to Information Act.
Wouldn’t it be cheaper for the government if it just gave away the information for free, Agrawal had asked.
Mishra had agreed with this line of thought when he had in 2013 told the home ministry it might be technically correct to ask for a Rs 2 fee for a page of information, but it certainly wasn’t prudent as “much more public money is lost in correspondence”.
Mathur, who took over as CIC last month, said Mishra’s decision “was rendered in ignorance of the statutory provisions” and not binding on this commission.
But the information commission has repeatedly questioned this provision.
Just last November, information commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu took the national green tribunal to task for spending Rs 30,000 in legal fees to defend its decision of not providing information to a citizen who had paid the Rs 10 RTI fee in court stamps and not via postal order.
“The law has to conform to common sense,” said Mishra while another former CIC, AN Tiwari, termed this penny wise, pound foolish rule an “absurdity”.
Like Mathur, Tiwari and Mishra too were IAS officers. They retired from the department of personnel that oversees the implementation of the transparency law before being appointed to the commission. An IIT alumnus, Mathur retired as defence secretary last year.
A retired government official said if the previous UPA government had gone strictly by the book, the RTI Act may have been dead by now. The law ministry had told former PM Manmohan Singh that information commissioners could only decide cases if all of them sat on the bench together. Singh’s office had, however, advised against pursuing this line as it could be counterproductive to the spirit of the law.