//Public can access file notings, rules Guarat State CIC

Public can access file notings, rules Guarat State CIC

Says notings are integral part of file, so they come under definition of information

Bashir Pathan / Abhishek Kapoor, November 01, 2006 Express India

Gandhinagar, October 31: In a landmark precedence-setting judgment, Gujarat’s Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) R N Das has ruled that ‘‘file-notings’’ are part of ‘‘information’’ under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, directing the Urban Development Department (UDD) here to let public have access to the notings.

The verdict was given by the Commissioner while disposing of a petition of former bureaucrat Premshankar Bhatt, who had appealed to the Information Commission after he was denied information sought over the setting up of an elected local body for Gandhinagar city.

On October 25, Das set aside the then UDD Secretary K Kailashnathan’s order of June 2006, as also the December 2005 order of Public Information Officer (PIO) of the UDD denying Bhatt access to the information sought. The verdict finally asks the department to allow Bhatt to inspect the files, and provide information sought within 15 days from the receipt of the order.

Allowing the appeal, the CIC has given weightage to the words ‘‘records, opinions, and advices’’ in the definition of information in section 2(f) of the RTI Act. According to the verdict, file, and the material contained in it, is part of ‘‘record’’, thus coming under the definition of information. ‘‘A file would not be complete without notings on it. File notings are integral part of a file. Usually, such notings contain ‘opinions’ and ‘advices’ of officials. Therefore, this commission is of the view that by inference ‘file notings’ can be said to be included in the definition of ‘information’,’’ said the verdict.

In the most significant observation, Das has held that the contention of the officials that disclosing file notings would be detrimental to an honest expression of opinion by them does not hold ground. ‘‘It is hypothetical whether disclosure of file notings would hinder expression of clear, unequivocal and honest views by the officials,’’ he said.

Going a step ahead, the judgment observes that the practice of disclosing file notings would, in fact, strengthen expression of honest and clear views on the file.

The Commission has also agreed with Bhatt that the reports of the State government team that visited Chandigarh and New Delhi some time ago, cannot be said to be part of file notings, and that the appellant can have access to the reports under the Act.

In November 2005, Bhatt, who heads the Gandhinagar Citizens’ Forum, had made an application with the PIO of the department, seeking inspection of the file that dealt with the question of an elected local body for Gandhinagar. Bhatt had also clarified that he was not interested in the notes to the Cabinet.

The department declined Bhatt’s petition in December, following which he went in appeal to the department’s Secretary, the appellate authority according to the RTI Act, in January 2006. The denial was on the grounds that the General Administration Department (GAD) had issued a circular dated November 14, 2005, which excluded file notings from the meaning of information under the RTI Act.

The then UDD Secretary K Kailashnathan did not respond in the mandated 30 days. This prompted Bhatt to go in for the second appeal, this time to the State Information Commission (SIC) in March. Kailashnathan is now principal secretary to the chief minister.

The then CIC, P K Das, only ordered the UDD secretary to hear and dispose of Bhatt’s appeal in a proper manner within 30 days, also taking into the views of the GAD. Kailasnathan followed this order and yet dismissed the appeal in June this year, without giving Bhatt his plea.

‘‘The department was indulging in delaying tactics for such a simple thing despite knowing that there is no vested interest,’’ says Bhatt. An unhappy Bhatt went in appeal again to the SIC. This time new commissioner R N Das sat in judgment.

Said aggrieved Bhatt in his appeal: ‘‘The appellate authority had failed to appreciate the objective of the RTI Act, to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.’’ To that extent, access to the notings, according to Bhatt, were not exempted under section 8 of the Act.

Bhatt was even denied access to some correspondence and reports of the government teams that visited Chandigarh and Delhi to study the municipal model best suited for Gandhinagar.

The new State CIC heard both the parties on September 27. The department officials contended that had the law wanted notings as part of ‘‘information’’, the Act would have clarified it.

But Bhatt countered with examples of the Cetral Information Commission where the national body had ruled to the effect that notings are included in the definition of information. Bhatt feels that the judgment opens a window of opportunity for others seeking information and access to file notings. ‘‘I have already been approached by some people regarding this,’’ Bhatt said.