New Delhi: In its latest attempt to block information about the PM-CARES Fund being requested through right to information queries, the Prime Minister’s Office has said providing such information would “disproportionately divert the resources of the office”. The PMO has cited Section 7(9) of the RTI Act to deny the information request – despite rulings by high courts and the Central Information Commission stating that the section cannot be used this way.
In the past, an over-guarded PMO has warded off all attempts to garner information about the PM-CARES Fund, which was set up to meet the challenges arising out of the COVID-19 crisis and attracted donations running into thousands of crores. In May, the PMO stated that the Fund is not a not a public authority under Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, and therefore it won’t be able to divulge information sought in the application.
This time, when noted RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired) approached the PMO with a query on RTI applications filed with respect to the PM-CARES Fund as well as the PM National Relief Fund, the respondent took refuge behind Section 7(9) of the RTI Act. Courts and the Commission have repeatedly said, though, that this section “does not allow denial of information but denial of providing the same in the form in which it has been sought”.
Plea sought details on RTIs filed regarding PM-CARES, PMNRF
On May 26, Batra filed an RTI application seeking details of the total number of RTI applications received by the PMO since April 2020 and the RTI applications disposed of.
Batra also asked for data on the total number of RTI applications related to “PM Cares Fund” received in the PMO, and the number of RTI applications related to the Fund that have been replied to. Likewise, he also sought the number of applications received related to PM National Relief Fund (PMNRF) and the number of those replied to by the PMO.
On not getting a response to his query, Batra sent a reminder to the deputy secretary and first appellate authority in the PMO on July 16, stating that though 52 days have passed, he has still not received a reply to his query.
PMO says compiling information would ‘disproportionately divert resources’
Finally, on August 14, the PMO responded to Batra’s query. However, it provided only a partial answer to his application by giving month-wise details of RTI applications and appeals received in PMO in general and those disposed of.
As for his queries pertaining to applications related to PM-CARES Fund and PMNRF, the PMO reply said “the information sought by you is not maintained in this office in complied 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.”
CIC repeatedly held Section 7(9) does not allow denial of information
Batra, however, contended that there are several orders of the Central Information Commission and the high courts which state that Section 7(9) of the RTI Act does not provide grounds for denial of information.
He cited a CIC decision of January 12, 2010 as stating, “…As for information having been denied since it is voluminous, the Commission holds that Section 7(9) of the Act does not allow denial of information but denial of providing the same in the form in which it has been sought in the event this leads to disproportionate diversion of resources of the Public Authority…”
Earlier, on February 25, 2006, the Commission had held that “Section 7(9) does not authorize refusal of information but only disclosure in a form other than that asked for, for reasons given in that Section.”
High court said Section 7(9) does not impart discretion to withhold information
The judiciary has also provided very lucid judgments in the matter which clearly lay down that information cannot be denied citing Section 7(9) of the RTI Act, the way the PMO did.
The Kerala high court had ruled on August 30, 2010, “[The] 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, if the form in which it is sought for would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority.”
The high court had gone on to state that “in fact there is no provision in the Act to deny information on the ground that the supply of the information would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority”.