New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) has asked the Modi government to relax the 30-day time limit within which it is obliged to reply to RTI (Right To Information) queries, in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown, ThePrint has learnt.
According to an official in the CIC, the request was made last month, considering the fact that government offices are shut, making it difficult to reply to queries filed under the RTI Act.
The commission has requested for relaxation in the 30-day limit within which a Public Information Officer (PIO) is expected to reply to an RTI query, the 45-day limit within which a senior official of the department or the ministry concerned is expected to reply to the first appeal, as well as the 90-day limit within which the CIC or the state information commissions are supposed to reply to the second appeal.
“The whole country has been under a lockdown… All the government offices have been shut,” said the official, who did not want to be named. “That is why the commission thought that a PIO should not be penalised if they are not in a position to reply within the stipulated time frame.”
The commission has, however, not specified an alternative time limit within which RTI requests during the lockdown should be disposed of.
“It cannot be predicted when the PIO would be able to get the information and share it. Hence, we could not come up with an upper limit,” the official added.
The government has not responded to the CIC’s request yet, the official said.
When contacted, spokesperson of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) Shambhu Chaudhary told ThePrint that senior officials in the DoPT have refused to comment on the matter.
‘Take a view under present circumstances’
The issue was also mentioned by Chief Information Commissioner Bimal Jhulka in a meeting of the National Federation of Information Commissions in India on 29 April.
The minutes of the meeting, accessed by ThePrint, said, “The Central Information Commission has taken up the matter with DoPT for suitable tweaking of the guidelines to exclude the period of lockdown from the limitation period stipulated under the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005.
“However, considering the prevailing situation, and the existing provisions under Section 7 (1), 19 (1) and 19 (3) of the RTI Act, 2005, efforts should be made by the jurisdictional authority to take a view under the present circumstances.”
Provision to grant relaxation is in the law
It is, however, not within the government or the DoPT’s powers to dilute or relax the time limit since it is stipulated under the RTI Act — tweaking which would require an amendment to the law, said RTI Activist Anjali Bhardwaj.
“This is the time when there needs to be greater transparency, and any attempt to change the law would be very dangerous,” she said.
Moreover, there is no need for the CIC to ask for a relaxation of this nature since the provision to grant relaxation where there is a legitimate reason is built within the law, she added.
“The information commissions have the authority to decide that in a particular case, the PIO had a reason to delay the information… and the lockdown is, of course, a legitimate reason,” she said. “But to ask for this kind of a tweaking of law would simply increase arbitrariness.”
Bhardwaj also said that rather than shrinking the RTI Act, the Covid-19 crisis has thrown up the need for more transparency and scrutiny in matters related to the life and liberty of citizens, especially regarding food distribution, social security, health, spending of public money during this time and other Covid 19-related matters.
Bhardwaj had written to the CIC on 19 April, regarding the need for more proactive disclosures by the government during the lockdown — an issue which the CIC took up with the DoPT subsequently, urging the government to increase disclosures during this time.