Mumbai: In a significant change in the manner in which applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act are dealt with, which could have serious repercussions even beyond Maharashtra, two benches of the Maharashtra State Information Commission have decided to do away with the option of a ‘second appeal’ by an applicant in case the First Appellate Authority (FAA) gives its decision in favour of the applicant but the application still does not receive the information sought.

Instead of entertaining the option of a second appeal from the applicant in such a case, the two benches have decided that the appeal will be converted into a ‘complaint’ and the Public Information Officer (PIO) will be penalised in case they have defaulted under the RTI Act.

These changes, according to State Chief Information Commissioner Sumit Mullick, have been prompted by a re-reading of the RTI Act and a Calcutta High Court order of May 2010 by Sunil Porwal, Information Commissioner, Greater Mumbai bench.

What set the changes in motion was an internal letter from Porwal to Mullick, stating that the RTI Act stipulates that a second appeal can be filed only against a first appeal order. Porwal’s position, in the letter, is that if the first appeal order is in favour of the applicant, the question of a second appeal does not arise.

Following this, over 200 appeals with the Greater Mumbai bench have already been converted into complaints after securing the consent of the RTI applicants.

If an applicant does not agree to convert the appeal into a complaint in case the FAA’s decision was in the applicant’s favour, his or her appeal will be dismissed.

Maharashtra’s chief information commissioner, Sumit Mullick, too has started giving fresh dates after securing the consent of RTI applicants to change their appeals to complaints.

While the move may put the PIO in the dock for disciplinary action - a longstanding demand to make officials more disciplined and the RTI Act more effective - the move, however, has left some crucial unanswered questions.

In particular, a Supreme Court order of December 2011, that became a major talking point, states that `complaints’ and `appeals’ are to be treated differently and that the information commission cannot direct that information be given when a `complaint’ is filed, and that it can do so only when an applicant approaches it through the `appeal’ route.

When contacted, Porwal, who was aware of the SC order making an important distinction between an `appeal’ and a `complaint’, refused to comment.

Mullick, who was not aware of the SC order, said,”I will first go through the order.”

In the past, a former chief information commissioner used to exercise powers under the RTI Act and issue orders that information be divulged as part of suo motu disclosure by a public authority if an applicant came through the`complaint’ route, to ensure that the applicant got the information sought.

However, with different information commissioners having differing views, serious concerns have now arisen on whether an applicant will be able to get information even if the PIO is penalized and disciplinary action is initiated.

Bhaskar Prabhu, an RTI activist said, “The commission can decide to either hear it as a complaint or appeal. But the operative part of the commission’s order has to mention the following — why a PIO was penalised or not, that the FAA order was not complied with, and that the FAA authority should ensure compliance and send a report of compliance of their order to the commission.

The Commission cannot just wash its hands off with an applicant not getting information.”

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