Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Additional Fee - CIC's Important Order

I filed an RTI application with the Southern Railways in February 2008. In that application, I asked for copies of various rules related to different quotas in train tickets booking (like emergency, tatkal) and also asked for the number of tickets booked under each quota. In reply to this I got a letter from Mr.A.Cyril Raj, Asst. Public Information Officer & Dy. Chief Manager/Claims. This communication stated that the information I had asked for comes to 47 pages, and that I have to furnish 94 rupees to get that. In addition to that, I was also asked to pay 750 rupees for the 8 man hours it would take to collect the information.

I filed a first appeal against this and the appeallate authority upheld the order of the PIO saying that the cost of maintenance of MIS applications, CPU and hard disk power etc were considered when 750 rupees were asked. Against this I filed a second appeal with the Central Information Commision on 10th June 2008. Nothing much happened after this and I kept waiting. Another appeal that I filed with the CIC after this appeal was also heard, but I did not hear much about this earlier appeal.
About a month back, there was this notice on the CIC website which I came to know of. This said that a hearing was scheduled for June 8th in which the scope of section 7(3) (additional fee) was going to be heard by a bench of commissioners. So I thought that my case was put on hold till this bench decides on the issue. But to my surprise I received a notice for a hearing of my case on 19th June 2009. I called up the commission and informed them that since I will not be able to come to Delhi for this, I wanted the hearing to be held through video conferencing. To this the official told me that if a video conference has to be scheduled, then the date of hearing has to be changed which cannot be done. So I asked him to hold the hearing through audio conferencing to which he agreed and took down my number.
On 19th June 2009 at 3.30 PM the hearing was held. I joined in on my phone. But by the time they called me, it seemed that the PIO has already put forward his arguemnts. When I joined the commissioner Ms.Annapurna Dixit, asked me put forward my points in the argument. I pointed out that there was inconsistency in the what the PIO and the Appellate Authority said. While the PIO talked only about man hours, the Appellate Authority said that the cost includes maintenance of MIS applications, hard disk, CPU power etc. I said that this clearly shows that the demand of Rs.750 was arbitrary. The more important point was that under RTI there is no scope for charging man power and maintenance costs as "further fee" under RTI.
The commissioner agreed that there was no scope for charging this information under RTI, but advised me not to ask voluminous information in future. I immediately refused saying that the information I had asked was not voluminous in nature, and that I had asked only information related to only 1 train for a continuous period of 10 days. To this the PIO said that running this query will affect the online booking system. Then I pointed out that having done my Masters in Computer Applications, I knew a little bit about databases and that what the PIO claimed was wrong. I also pointed out that when I make a booking online, I run several queries before finalising my trip schedule, and that one more query wont bring the system down.
To this the PIO said that the information I asked cannot be compared to my querying while online booking since online booking contains details only about the last 5 days, and the information I had asked for was from the archived data. This clearly was a contradiction. When the query I had to run was on archived data, how can the PIO claim that this query will bring the online booking system down. This I pointed out to the Commissioner.
At this point, the commissioner said that she did not want to get into a debate about this and so I left it at that. I also requested her to state clearly in her order that there is no scope for man power and maintenance fee costs under RTI.
I was reasonably happy at the way the hearing went, except for the fact that when the PIO claimed that the information I sought was voluminous the Commissioner wanted to advise me, but when I pointed out how the claim of "Voluminous" data, was wrong, she backed out of the debate.
About a week later the decision was put up on the web (can be seen here). The order categorically stated that there was no scope for charging manpower and maintenance costs under section 7(3) of the Right to Information act, 2005. But there was a disappointment for me.
The order says that I agreed that the information I had asked for was voluminous. This is totally untrue. I dont know why the order says so. In fact I spent a considerable part of the hearing bringing out the inconsistencies of the Southern Railways claim that the information I had asked for was voluminous. I wonder how such a statement can be given in the order. I have already filed a complaint with the Commissioner and the Assistant registrar about this sentence in the order. But when I called up the Asst registrar, I was told that the Commissioner was on leave for 1 month and hence nothing can be done right now. Will have to wait for a month for that to see what can be done.
This was covered in Dinamalar, a Tamil Newspaper and Times of India. The link to the Times of India article is given below.
The Dinamalar article can be seen here.


Ramanan said...

The "transaction" looks voluminous. The PIO is hell bent on not acceding. But would there be a stench if the data is made available? or is it just to demonstrate the system can be made to work?

V Madhav said...

Hi Ramanan, I did not understand your first sentence. But as for your question, I filed the RTI only because I was curious as to how many tickets are booked through tatkal, how many through agents etc during peak seasons. I really dont expect anything damaging to come out with the information. The reason, I think, that the PIO is refusing to give is only that they want to make it as difficult as possible for people to get information. They are possibly trying to kill the act slowly. Gradually people will start losing interest in RTI, because it does not yield results quickly, or that Public Authorities come up with one objection or the other to give information. And eventually, they wont have to answer any RTI applications. It is the growth of such an attitude among PIOs that I am trying to prevent by persisting through to the appeal stage. But this case was a little important because, this kind of charging fee for manpower became a habit for Southern Railways. A convenient way for them to dissuade applicants.

Anand said...

Nice blog..Madhav!! I am also an AID volunteer from Chicago. Your blog is very informative and talks not just abt the RTI Act but also has good instances of how it can be used and has been used...