New Delhi: The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) recently restrained the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) from disclosing in response to an application filed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) as to how the PM CARES Fund, set up at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, was granted the gov.in domain despite not being a public authority.
Recently, central information commissioner Vanaja J. Sarna recorded in her order that in response to a second appeal filed before the Commission by an appellant, Kavya Pahwa, the CPIO of MeitY’s RTI division, Swarup Dutta, submitted during the hearing that the subject matter of the RTI query or appeal was regarding allocation of the gov.in domain name to the PM CARES Fund.
Dutta further submitted that as per the information received from the deemed PIO and custodian of the information i.e NIC Web Technology Division, the information requested for in the RTI query of the appellant falls under the category of third party information and accordingly a notice was sent to the PMO.
PMO told MeitY to not disclose any information
However, the CPIO said, the PMO, through a letter dated August 5, 2020, restrained the ministry from revealing any information on the subject. It wrote: “PM Cares Fund is not a public authority under the ambit of Sec 2(h) of the RTI Act and therefore M/o Electronics and Information Technology may not disclose any information in respect of PM Cares Fund.” Following this letter, which was also conveyed to the appellant by the National Informatics Centre, the RTI application was disposed of online on August 14, 2020.
However, Sarna recorded that the appellant filed the second appeal saying she was not provided the desired information. Pahwa had sought a copy of the entire file – including file notings, letters, communications, office memos, orders, cabinet decision, cabinet papers – relating to how MeitY decided to allot the gov.in domain to the PM CARES Fund by allowing it to operate the pmcares.gov.in website.
The appellant also asked for a copy of all the documents submitted by the PM CARES Fund and a copy of the order or permission granted to it to use the domain name.
‘Use of gov.in showed affinity of fundwith Government of India’
Sarna recorded in the order that “the usage of “gov.in” indicates that the PM CARES Fund has an affinity with the Government of India. This is because other entities which use this domain name include the office of the president, the PMO and various Union government ministries.
Further, Pahwa submitted that since the PM CARES Fund, according to its own admission, is not a public authority, the usage of “gov.in” is contrary to extant guidelines issued by MeitY.
The appellant pointed out that the guidelines prepared by the National Informatics Centre, MeitY state: “The URL or the website address of any Government Website is also a strong indicator of its authenticity and status as being official. In today’s era with a large proliferation of websites, which resemble Government websites and fraudulently claim to provide reliable Government information and service, the role of a designated Government domain name assumes a lot of significance.”
‘gov.in use restricted only to government websites’
Also, she submitted that section 2.2.1 of the guidelines read: “Hence, in compliance to the Government’s Domain name policy, all Indian Government websites must use “gov.in” or “nic.in” domain exclusively allotted and restricted to Government websites.”
The appellant also submitted that according to the guidelines issued by MeitY, any autonomous society, body, project, scheme, event, committee of the Union or state/UT governments are “ineligible” for registration under the gov.in domain zone.
Pawha submitted that several people have donated substantial amounts of money to the PM CARES Fund believing that the Government of India runs the fund. She further argued that this belief is only strengthened by the fact that the fund uses the “gov.in” domain name. “There is a possibility that the PM CARES FUND may have been using the gov.in name in contravention to the guidelines prescribed by MeitY,” she added.
Incidentally, the Union government has repeatedly denied information under the RTI Act about money collected and disbursed under Fund.
‘Public interest involved in query’
Pawha said that Section 11 of the RTI Act was invoked by the CPIO when saying the issue pertains to a third party and therefore the information was treated as confidential. ‘Third party’ has been defined under Section 2(n) of the RTI Act as “means a person other than the citizen making a request 4 for information and includes a ‘public authority’”.
The appellant argued that information cannot be denied under this section on the ground that the PM CARES Fund is not a public authority, since the section prescribes that for disclosure of third-party information – except in the case of trade or commercial secrets protected by law – disclosure may be allowed if the public interest in disclosure outweighs in importance any possible harm to the interest of the third party. She insisted that it was in public interest to disclose information about the basis on which the PM CARES Fund was given permission to use the domain name.
Pahwa submitted that Section 11 was cited by the officials “without applying their mind and for reasons best known to them”, saying the information sought in the instant case is held by MeitY and not by the Fund. “[I]t is irrelevant whether [PM CARES] is a public authority or not under the RTI Act. She [Pawha] reiterated that the information sought is held by MEITY and this Ministry is a Public Authority under the RTI Act,” CIC Sarna recorded in the order.
During the hearing in the matter, CPIO Dutta submitted that as per the NIC Web Technology Division, “The pmcares.gov.in has been given to Hon’ble Prime Minister’s office (Apex Body) in compliance with the ‘Guidelines for allocation of registration at the third level under Gov.in domain zone dates 23.10.2019’ issued by Internet Governance division, M/o Electronics and Information Technology.”
Accordingly, he said the NIC as a public authority made a written request to the PMO as per Section 11 of the RTI Act for obtaining their consent for release of information, which was denied.
Sarna, on hearing both the parties, and based on the documents available on record, observed that the CPIO failed to provide a categorical reply on August 14, 2020 and also failed to invoke any exemption clause under Section 8 of the RTI Act. “Simply quoting Section 11, which is not an exemption clause, is not enough and thus a proper reply as per the RTI Act was not provided to the appellant.”
She agreed with the appellant that it is irrelevant whether the PM CARES Fund is a public authority or not. “The appellant had asked for information from MEITY and the same should have been given or in case of denial, it should have been supported with the correct exemption clause and fully justified,” the order reads.
On the allegation that the domain name was given to the Fund without complying with the extant guidelines, the Commission held that it was not the appropriate and competent forum to adjudicate the issue.
This order noted that another bench of the Commission had in its order of March 2, 2021 held that: “The information sought in the above two cases pertains to a body, viz. the PM Cares Fund. A public interest litigation is pending before the Delhi High Court to decide whether the said organisation falls within the ambit of the RTI Act, 2005. Hence at this stage, the queries raised relate to an organisation which has not been declared as a public authority under sec 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005. Thus, no infirmity is found with the replies furnished by the Respondent and no interference is warranted in the above two cases, at this stage.”
Citing this previous order of the Commission, Sarna concluded that though the PM CARES Fund is a third party, to deny the information, the correct exemption clause of the RTI Act should have been invoked by the CPIO.
She therefore directed the CPIOs to re-examine the information sought and provide a revised point wise reply.