PMO denies RTI plea seeking info on PM-CARES

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File   | Photo Credit: PTI

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has denied a Right to Information request related to the PM-CARES Fund on the grounds that providing it would “disproportionately divert the resources of the office.” However, a High Court judgment and multiple orders of the Central Information Commission (CIC) have previously held that, under the RTI Act, this rationale can only be used to change the format of information provided, not deny it altogether.

This is a “misuse” of the Act, which should attract penalties under the law, says the country’s first Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah.

RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd.) had filed an RTI request asking for the total number of RTI applications and appeals received and disposed of in the PMO each month since April 2020, as well as the number of such applications and appeals related to PM-CARES and the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. On the eve of Independence Day, the PMO responded, providing the overall data, but denying information specific to the two funds.

“The information sought by you is not maintained in this office in compiled form. Its collection and compilation would disproportionately divert the resources of this office from the efficient discharge of its normal functions, thereby attracting the provisions under Section 7(9) of the Act,” said the PMO’s Chief Public Information Officer (CPIO).

It is Section 8 (1) which lists the various valid reasons for exemptions under the Act, which would allow denial of information. Section 7(9), on the other hand, only says, “An information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.”

HC verdict

In a 2010 judgment, the Kerala High Court dismissed the possibility of using this clause to deny information. “That Section does not even confer any discretion on a public authority to withhold information, let alone any exemption from disclosure. It only gives discretion to the public authority to provide the information in a form other than the form in which the information is sought for,” it said.

Nevertheless, CPIOs continue to provide this as an excuse to deny information, as seen in the multiple appeal cases heard and dismissed by the CIC. The latest example comes from the PMO itself.

“There is no ambiguity. This is a misuse of the clause by CPIOs. It is up to the information commissions to levy penalties as this would amount to misinformation provided under the Act,” said Mr. Habibullah, who authored several of those CIC orders. “In my time, it was the initial phase when people were still learning about the Act, so we were lenient with regard to penalties on this issue. However, it is now well established and there is no excuse for such misuse.”

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 12:18:13 PM |

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