A CPIO can't function merely as a 'post office': HC

New Delhi: A Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) cannot function merely as a "post office" and is responsible for ensuring that information sought under the RTI Act is provided in a non-arbitrary manner, the Delhi High Court has ruled. The court also observed that the said CPIO "cannot withhold information without reasonable cause".

The observations were made by a single-judge bench of Justice Pratibha Singh in an order passed on January 22, when the court was hearing a petition filed by two now-retired officers of the Union Bank of India, where they worked as CPIOs, challenging a December 14 order by the Central Information Commissioner (CIC), through which penalties amounting to Rs. 10,000 had been imposed upon them for furnishing "evasive and incomplete" response to an RTI applicant.

The RTI, filed by a former Chief Manager of the bank, requested furnishing of details of the Board approval along with justification for giving exemption with regard to three years branch head service.

However, in response, the CPIO cited it being "an internal document of commercial confidence" and therefore exempted from disclosure. Further appeal to the Appellate Authority also elicited the same response.

After an appeal was filed with the CIC, it was found that there was no reason to not furnish the required details and that the responses provided were rather "incomplete and evasive". Subsequently, both the CPIOs were issued show cause notice to explain their stand.

However, following this the petitioners changed their stand and claimed that the information was not found on record. Observing the variance in their replies and a lapse of more than two and a half years since the information was sought, the CIC found "mala fides" on behalf of the officers and imposed a penalty of Rs. 10,000 each.

In her order, Justice Singh, relying on several past judgements, noted that a CPOI/PIO has to apply their mind, analyse the material and then disclose information or give reasons for non-disclosure.

"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," the court said.

Further observing that information cannot be refused without reasonable cause, the court stated, "Every effort should be made to locate information, and the fear of disciplinary action would work as a deterrent against suppression of information for vested interests".

Justice Singh also stated that the exercise of power by the PIO/CPIO "has to be with objectivity and seriousness" and they cannot be casual in their approach.

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