Del HC | Penalty imposed on CPIOs for “changing stands” leading to apprehension of mala fides and unreasonable conduct; Elaborate principles laid down for exercise of power by CPIOs

Delhi High Court: Prathiba M. Singh, J., upheld that order of the Central Information Commission whereby a penalty of Rs 10000 was imposed on the petitioners for changing stands while not providing the information as sought by the applicant under the RTI Act.

The instant petition was filed by two officers working with the Union Bank of India as Central Public Information Officers (CPIO).

The above-two officers challenged the impugned Order passed by the Central Information Commission vide which penalties amounting to Rs 10,000 were imposed upon them.

Background

An RTI application was filed by the applicant who was the Chief Manager at the Union Bank of India wherein he sought the following information:

Details of the Board approval along with justification for giving exemption with regard to 3 years branch head service.

The Office of the CPIO had informed the applicant that copy of the board note, being an internal document of commercial confidence would be exempted from disclosure.

Even the appellant authority stated that the copy of the board approval was exempted from being disclosed under Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act.

In the second appeal with regard to the matter, CIC found that there was no reason why complete information was not provided to the applicant and held that the responses provided were rather incomplete and evasive. Therefore, a show-cause notice to the CPIOs of the bank was issued.

On receiving the above show cause notice, the CPIOs responded stating that the information which was sought could not be found on record. Due to the change in stand by the petitioners, CIC imposed a penalty of Rs 10,000 under Section 20 of the RTI Act.

Analysis and Decision

Bench referred to this Court’s decision in R.K Jain v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine Del 10957  wherein it was recognized that the CPIO, being the custodian of information or documents sought for, is primarily responsible under the scheme of the RTI Act to supply the information, and in cases of default, the penal action is to be invoked against the CPIO only.

In the decision of Registrar of Companies v. Dharmendra Kumar Garg (WP(C) 11271/2009, decided on 1st June, 2012), the role of CPIOs under the RTI Act was elaborately dealt with.

Further, in the decision of J.P. Agrawal v. Union of India, (WP(C) 7232/2009, decided on 4th August, 2011) the Single Judge recognized that:

CPIOs/PIOs are not merely “post offices” and have a crucial responsibility in facilitating the purpose of the RTI Act.

 In light of the above decisions, the High Court laid down the following principles:

i)  CPIO/PIOs cannot withhold information without reasonable cause;

ii)  A PIO/CPIO cannot be held responsible if they have genuinely rejected the information sought on valid grounds permissible under the Act. A mere difference of opinion on the part of CIC cannot lead to an imposition of penalty under Section 20 of the RTI Act;

iii)  Government departments ought not to be permitted to evade disclosure of information. Diligence has to be exercised by the said departments, by conducting a thorough search and enquiry, before concluding that the information is not available or traceable;

iv) Every effort should be made to locate information, and the fear of disciplinary action would work as a deterrent against the suppression of information for vested interests;

v) PIO/CPIO cannot function merely as “post offices” but instead are responsible to ensure that the information sought under the RTI Act is provided;

vi) A PIO/CPIO has to apply their mind, analyze the material, and then direct disclosure or give reasons for non-disclosure. The PIO cannot rely upon subordinate officers;

vii) Duty of compliance lies upon the PIO/CPIO. The exercise of power by the PIO/CPIO has to be with objectivity and seriousness the PIO/CPIO cannot be casual in their approach.

viii) Information cannot be refused without reasonable cause.

Conclusion

Hence, the Court held that under the RTI Act, the CPIOs have a solemn responsibility.

Section 5(3) requires that every CPIO or SPIO shall deal with requests for information and `render reasonable assistance’ to the persons seeking information.

CPIOs or SPIOs can seek assistance from higher/other officials in the organisation in order to enable them to furnish the information sought for the `proper discharge’ of their duties, as per Section 5(4).

 In the present matter, CPIOs changed their stands which would go on to show that there was an intention to withhold certain important documents or information, leading to the finding of mala fides and unreasonable conduct.

In light of the above, Court opined that the penalty imposed could not be faulted with. However, considering the fact that both the CPIOs since retired from the service of the Bank, the penalty was reduced to Rs 5,000 each. [Rakesh Kumar Gupta (Erstwhile CPIO) Union Bank of India v. CIC, 2021 SCC OnLine Del 194, decided on 22-01-2021]


Advocates for the parties:

For the Petitioners: Mr O.P. Gaggar, Advocate.

For the Respondents: Mr Gaurang Kanth, Standing Counsel with Mr Aman Singh Bakhshi, Advocate.

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