The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) - the nodal department for implementing The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) in the Government of India has uploaded two important documents on its website.
1) The DoPT has issued reasonably detailed guidance for Public Information Officers (PIOs) to help them send better drafted replies to RTI applicants. Every PIO is now required to include in his.her reply- the office number given to the request, name and contact details of the PIO including email address, detailed reasons invoking the relevant provisions of access to information is denied, name and contact details of the appellate authority whom the applicant may approach with a grievance within 30 days of receipt of the reply. This advisory is an outcome of the consultation on the subject that the DoPT launched in March this year.
This guidance also includes instructions as to how certified copies may be issued under the RTI Act by the PIO on request. The PIO will have to endorse the copy as follows: "True copy of the document/record supplied under RTI Act", sign the copy with date and affix his/her seal containing his name and name of the public authority. If the requestor seeks documents that are numerous, then the certification of the copies may be done by any other junior gazetted officer, but the reply must be sent by the PIO.
This OM has been despatched to all Ministries and Departments, Secretariats of Parliament, President's Secretariat, Prime Minister's Office, NITI Ayog, Election Commission, Comptroller and Auditor General and the Chief Secertaries of all States and Union Territories.
It is heartening to note that two issues about which clarity was required have been dealt with officially after 10 years of implementation of the RTI Act. Readers will remember that the issue of certified copies being sought by applicants under the RTI Act was discussed by the Kerala High Court in January 2014 in the John Numpeli (Junior) case. In this case the Court ruled that Section 2(j) of the RTI Act does not take away the right of an individual to get certified copies under other laws such as the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 or the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.Conversely, if an RTI applicant seeks certified copies under the RTI Act then the PIO must attest to the fact that the copies have been issued under the RTI Act.
A "genius" PIO in one of the northern Indian States had used the Kerala HC judgement, recently, to deny certified copies to an RTI applicant. When a prominent RTI activist brought this case to my attention, I had sent him a copy of the judgement to help the RTI applicant. This episode reminded me of the saying in my native langauge crudely translated as follows- "what God proposes the priest disposes as he deems fit" (in Kannada - "devaru vara kottaru, pujari koda")
Thankfully the DoPT has now issued this OM making it very clear as to how certified copies may be given under the RTI Act. Frankly, there is no conflict between Section 76 of the Indian Evidence Act and Section 2(j) of the RTI Act. In both laws, any person who has the right to inspect any public document/record, has the right to seek a certified copy from its custodian on payment of the relevant fees. Public authorities resistant to the idea of greater transparency in their working, had created much confusion holding that certified copies can be given only under the Indian Evidence Act and not under the RTI Act. PIOs also pointed out that documents certified under the RTI Act could not be used as evidence in Courts. Thankfully, the Kerala High Court's judgement and now the DoPT's latest OM have brought closure to this controversy. PIOs henceforth must supply certified copies to RTI applicants on demand if the information is not covered by any exmeption under the RTI Act. In my opinion documents certified under the RTI Act can be used in Courts as evidence/exhibits by litigants.
I hope the General Administration Department in Jammu and Kashmir also takes this step to bring clarity about issuance of certified copies to RTI applicants under the J&K RTI Act, 2009.
2) The DopT has also uploaded on its website its 2nd Compendium of Best Practices in implementing RTI across the country. There are several interesting initiatives documented in this compendium. I hope the DoPT will bring out a 3rd volume focusing more on how Government Departments and Ministries have brought about changes to their working due to RTI interventions of the citizenry. This is what many of us would like to hear when we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the RTI Act. Readers may go through the documentation of CHRI's efforts to make transparency a reality at the grassroots level in the Panchayats of Gujarat in this Compendium.