Though the RTI Act came about in 2005, it still remains unclear if a citizen seeking information can be described a consumer

In India, the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) was enacted in 2005 and since then, has proved to be a strong weapon in the hands of people for improving transparency in the Government departments.

However, the moot question is, can a citizen, filing an application under the RTI Act, be considered a consumer as defined under the Consumer Protection Act and failure to provide information under RTI construed as “deficiency in service” for which a citizen can approach the Consumer Fora for redress. There are diverse views on the subject and this continues to remain an unsettled issue.

Earlier, in the case of Dr. S.P. Thirumala Rao vs. Municipal Commissioner, Mysore City, the National Commission held that when a citizen seeks information through an application under the RTI Act and pays the prescribed fee, he becomes a consumer as per the Consumer Protection Act, who has sought certain service. If the public information officer, who is to be considered the service provider, does not provide the requested information within the prescribed period or if the information provided is inaccurate or incomplete, then, it would amount to deficiency in service, it said.

However, subsequently, there are other judgments of the National Commission that state otherwise. Recently, in S. Dorai Raj vs. Divisional Personnel Officer & Nodal Public Information Officer, Southern Railway, Madurai & Anr. that came up before the National Commission, the Commission observed that apart from the complaint being time-barred and the issue of jurisdiction, the petitioner had no case even on merit. The State Commission had earlier held that it was the duty of the appellant to prove that there existed a relationship of “consumer” and “service provider” with the respondent. Under the RTI Act, the appellant is entitled to obtain required information from the public information officer and if information is not provided then, remedy is available for him to approach the Appellate Authority under Section 19 of the RTI Act and therefore the complaint was not maintainable before the Consumer Fora, it said. The National Commission, in turn, stated that RTI Act was a Code in itself. It provides for remedies available under the Act to a person who was denied information. Hence, since the petitioner had specific remedy available to him under the Act, the present consumer complaint did not lie within the purview of the Consumer Protection Act, it held.

Nevertheless, presently, in another interesting case, a consumer forum in Bangalore has ruled that the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act could be invoked whenever there was deficiency in services provided by the public authorities under the RTI Act. In this particular instance, the complainant had sought for certain documents under the RTI Act, from the institution in which he was employed and had paid the required fees as well. However, the institution did not provide the documents within the prescribed time-line but gave it much later. The Forum held that according to Section 7 of the RTI Act, if information was provided beyond the 30-day deadline, the information / documents should be provided for free and since the institution had collected the fee and failed to provide service on time, it amounted to deficiency in service and thus directed the institute to refund the fees collected and pay an additional Rs. 900 towards cost of litigation.

(The writer works with CAG, which offers free advice on consumer complaints to its members. For membership details / queries contact 2491 4358 / 2446 0387 or helpdesk@cag.org.in)