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What are the new rules for?
They are called the RTI Rules 2012 and supersede the Central Information Commission (Appeal Procedure) Rules and the RTI (Regulation of Fee and Cost) Rules, both 2005, and which have made information more accessible than ever. The new rules were notified on July 31 but have not yet been implemented; they are waiting to be tabled in Parliament. The Department of Personnel and Training had initiated the process 21 months ago and took the advice of many stakeholders. The notification, which contains 15 rules and is yet to be posted on the DoPT website, has been accessed by The Indian Express.
As per rule 3, an application “shall ordinary not contain more than 500 words, excluding annexures, containing address of the CPIO and that of the applicant”. Though the words have been limited, 500 is still more than the 150-word limit set in Bihar (where any application must be on only one subject), Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Though the notification adds that “no application shall be rejected only on the ground that it contains more than 500 words”, Venkatesh Naik of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information fears that “the CPIOs may refuse applications and deny information on this ground”.
As per rules 3 and 4, the applicant has to pay postal charges when these exceed Rs 50. Other charges remain the same: Rs 10 for processing, Rs 5 per hour for inspection of documents with the first hour free. Under rule 4(e), an applicant will have to pay “price fixed for a publication or Rs 2 per page of photocopy for extracts from the publication.” Since information under RTI is free for people living below the poverty line, it means such publications will be accessible free to any applicant who submits a BPL certificate.
E-payment with rider
According to rule 6, the applicant, besides using the existing modes of payment, can also pay “by electronic means to the Account Officer of the public authority, if facility for receiving fees through electronic means is available with the public authority”. That means that if such a facility is not available with the authority, the applicant will still need to go through the cumbersome processes of non-electronic payment. Sources say that during consultation, many stakeholders had advised that it be made necessary that every public authority be able to receive fees electronically. It would have saved time for both sides.
2nd appeal, not 1st
Rule 8 comes with the heading “Appeal to the commission”. This is the second appeal, which is all that the set of rules deals with. No rules have been specified for the first appeal or the first appellate authority, FAA, who is approached before one applies to the Central Information Commission. FAAs belong to the departments concerned with the application and are senior to the CPIOs. Since there is no rule about them, the burden of work remains on the Information Commission. Says an official, “The workload of the Information Commission would have been reduced if the role of FAAs had been strengthened.”
Return of appeals
Rule 9 says that “an appeal may be returned to the appellant if it is not accompanied by the documents as specified in the rule.” A more appellant-friendly approach, say activists, would have been to ask the applicants to submit the documents needed without sending the appeal back. The rule means the applicant will have to file the request all over again.
Enter the 3rd party
Rule 11(V) says that commission, while deciding an appeal, may “hear the third party”. Practically all applications involve a third party, the department or officer on whom information is sought. So far, the commission itself has been making an assessment whether disclosing information on the third party is in the larger public interest. With the third party now given a hearing, activists fear the information may be delayed if not denied.
Applicant in person
Rule 12 complicates the disposal of second appeals. “The appellant may be present in person or through his duly authorised representative or through video conferencing, if the facility of video conferencing is available, at the time of hearing of the appeal by the commission,” it says. This was not necessary earlier. Says Lokesh Batra, retired commander and RTI activist, “Many NRIs or applicants who are away will now have to travel to attend the hearing. This rule may discourage them from filing appeals.”
Lawyers for info officers
Rule 13 introduces advocates for the commission: “The public authority may authorise any representative or any of its officers to present the case.” Says Subhash Chandra Aggarwal of Delhi, who uses the RTI frequently, “Now public authorities will engage advocates and all this will raise costs.” This will also dilute the CPIOs, accountability, activists say.