New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) recently pulled up the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for giving “no substantive/justifiable reason” for refusing to answer an appeal by claiming exemptions under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The appeal pertained to a January 2015 letter from the director, PMO to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) which stated that, “Prime Minister has approved that powers regarding appointment/promotion to the levels below Joint Secretary or equivalent may be delegated to the MoS (PMO).”
Quoting this excerpt from the letter, the appellant, Pankaj Bansal, had sought information on three points through his March 27, 2021 application: the date on which the prime minister delegated the aforementioned powers; the relevant file notings and correspondence of the concerned files in which the matter pertaining to the delegation of powers had been dealt with; and any other document/information relevant to the matter available in the file(s) of the PMO.
When he failed to receive a response from the Central Public Information Officer (PMO), Bansal filed a first appeal. The First Appellate Authority (FAA)/director in the PMO, on examining the records in the matter, directed the CPIO (PMO) to provide a response to the applicant within 25 working days.
PMO CPIO sought exemption citing various grounds
However, the CPIO responded through a letter dated September 24, 2021, seeking exemption under Section 24 of RTI Act from answering the first query regarding the date on which the prime minister delegated the powers of appointment.
Section 24 of the RTI Act lays down that the Act shall not apply to the intelligence and security organisations specified in the Second Schedule, being organisations established by the Union government or any information furnished by such organisations to that government.
In response to the other two queries, seeking details of relevant file notings and correspondence and other related documents and information, the CPIO sought exemption under Sections 8 (1) (g) and 8 (1) (j) of the Act.
Section 8 (1) (g) pertains to “information, the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes.” On the other hand, Section 8 (1) (j) covers “information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual….”
Not satisfied with the response, Bansal approached the Commission with a second appeal on July 23, 2022. The matter was heard by Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Y.K. Sinha on November 3, 2022.
In his order, the CIC recorded that the appellant participated in the hearing through video conference. Sinha noted that the appellant questioned the applicability of Section 24 (1), 8 (1) (g) and (j) invoked by the CPIO.
CIC held PMO official “feigned ignorance” regarding reasons for seeking exemption
During the hearing, Bansal cited the judgement of the Delhi high court in Jamia Millia Islamia versus Sh. Ikramuddin (WP (C) 5677/2011) and the decision of the CIC in Dhananjay Tripathi versus Banaras Hindu University (CIC/OK/A/00163) in support of his contentions. He further stated that the documents were required by him to file a writ petition before the Delhi high court.
CIC Sinha recorded in his November 10 order that the respondent official from the PMO reiterated the reply provided to the appellant in compliance with the FAA’s order and stated that the information sought may contain inputs provided by several organisations exempted from the purview of the RTI Act, 2005. This, he recorded, was the reason why exemption under Section 24 (1) was claimed.
However, Sinha wrote, “…he feigned ignorance regarding the reasons for which exemption u/s 8 (1) (g) and (j) was claimed.”
In view of the fact that the assistant PIO, present during the hearing, was also unable to address the issues raised by the appellant during the hearing, the CIC directed the concerned CPIO (PMO) Parveen Kumar to re-examine the RTI application and provide a revised and reasoned response in accordance with the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005, by November 30.
Incidentally, there have been instances in the past, too, where chief information commissioners have similarly pulled up information officers in the PMO for refusing information.
CIC had directed PMO to reveal info on private persons who accompanied Modi on foreign trips
Former CIC R.K. Mathur had in January 2018 directed the PMO to reveal information on private persons who accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi on foreign trips. In this case, repeated attempts were made by the PMO to deny information about the dignitaries and businessmen who accompanied the prime minister on official trips abroad, citing “security grounds”.
However, Mathur had directed the PMO to provide the appellant, Neeraj Sharma, with the “name/list of the private persons (who do not have any connection with the security) and who accompanied the prime minister on his international visits at public cost during 2014-2017″.
In this case, the appellant had complained to the Commission that the information sought by him had “not been provided” and that the PMO officials were “deliberately delaying the response to his RTI application by giving an interim reply”.
In his order, Mathur recorded that the appellant had contended that “there is no provision in the RTI Act for giving interim reply”. Further, he noted that Sharma had complained that the “sought for information has not been furnished to him”. The CIC also recorded in his order that as per the appellant, he had only been provided information on the first point raised by him and not the others.
PMO was cautioned when it delayed reply, diverted application on Reliance ad featuring Modi
In another instance, the CIC stepped in and cautioned the PMO against evading questions when an RTI application was filed posing questions on a Reliance Jio advertisement featuring a photograph of Prime Minister Modi. CIC Mathur, again in January 2018, had told the PMO to “be careful and give inputs for reply within the timeline prescribed by the RTI Act” when its officials evaded questions on the advertisement in which Modi’s photograph was displayed prominently.
In this case, appellant Neeraj Sharma had sought information on seven points, including whether “any permission was taken from the PMO by Reliance/Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited for the use of the prime minister’s photograph in their advertisements in different newspapers and TV channels, etc.”.
Since the PMO had not replied to the matter on time and had also diverted the application to another department which had claimed that it was not privy to the information, the CIC had cautioned it “to take due care in future in dealing with the RTI application”.
Mathur had also warned the concerned CPIO (PMO) to “be careful and give inputs for reply within the timeline prescribed by the RTI Act”.
However, as the latest case shows, there still continues to be some reluctance in a section of the PMO to provide information pertaining to the prime minister under the RTI Act.