In a U-turn, the Punjab government has decided to allow appellants seeking information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act to be heard by the first appellate authority in all state government departments.
On March 17, the administrative reforms department of the state government, in violation of the RTI Act, had told the first appellate authority in various departments to dispose of appeals under the Act without hearing the appellants.
Under the Act, any RTI applicant can approach the first appellate authority in case he is not satisfied with the reply of the public information officer (PIO) concerned or if he fails to get the information sought.
The state government reversed its decision after the intervention of the commissioner, state information commission (SIC), Surinder Awasthi during the hearing of a case, while telling the administrative reforms department to amend its order.
Pronouncing his order on an appeal filed by Pathankot resident Taranjit Singh on December 22, the information commissioner said, “It is heartening to note that the department of administrative reforms realised without wasting time that the contentious circular was not in consonance with the principle of natural justice and would have ultimately diluted the RTI Act by affecting the functioning of the first appellate authority.”
In his order, Awasthi added, “It is shocking that the government had taken a decision without taking advice from the legal remembrancer on misreading of the state information commission’s resolution passed nearly four years ago.”
Raising doubts about the functioning of the SIC, he said, “Equally baffling was the fact that none of the public authorities in Punjab contested the contentious circular, including the SIC. Shockingly, the chief information commissioner, being the head of the public authority, too, failed to gauge the damage the circular had caused since its implementation in March.”
During the hearing, the appellant, Taranjit, told the commission that his case could have been disposed of much earlier had the first appellate authority given him an opportunity to point out deficiencies in the information given by the PIO. However, the first appellate authority had not issued him any notice for hearing and went on to take an ex-parte decision, he added.
Quoting provisions of the Act, Awasthi said as the state information commissioner was expected to issue notices for hearing to both parties – information seeker and the PIO concerned - the first appellate authority could not be allowed to take ex-parte decisions without issuing the relevant notice to the appellant.
“Moreover, the first appellate authority would be seriously handicapped in deciding the appeals in the absence of the person who had preferred it against the PIO’s decision,” he observed.
Referring to the SIC resolution of February 2, 2011, the information commissioner said, “The (administrative reforms) department had misread the resolution while issuing an order on March 17. The resolution only suggested that the first appellate authority should not summon the appellant but it nowhere dissuaded the former from sending a notice for hearing to the appellant so that he can avail the opportunity to place his point of view.”
Commenting on the state government’s recent decision, chief information commissioner SS Channy said: “Any corrective step within the purview of the law is welcome.”