Bombay High Court imposes costs and directs registering an FIR for missing files
Missing records and files are a common feature in the government offices and very little seems to be done to mitigate the difficulties faced due to such inept handling of files. Sometimes, the ‘missing’ files maybe deliberate while in the majority of cases, it is an act of carelessness and improper ‘handing and taking over’. While it may lead to harm to the office in terms of vital information being lost, it also leads to a situation where ‘information’ is not provided to an applicant who seeks the same under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In one such instance, a case came up before the division bench of the Bombay High Court which has observed that information cannot be denied to a citizen under the RTI Act. The bench has directed to register an FIR against officers responsible for a ‘missing’ file and imposed costs of Rs 15,000 on the State Government.
On September 5, 2008, Vivek Vishnupant Kulkarni, a Sangli based advocate, filed an application with the Urban Development Department (UDD) in Maharashtra seeking information under RTI in respect of a Government Resolution (GR) dated August 21, 1996. The said GR pertained to release of various lands in and around the city of Sangli which were acquired by the State Government under the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act, 1976. Kulkarni, an office- bearer of Swatantraya Veer Savarkar Pratishthan, a NGO running two schools, sought information about the basis on which the said GR was issued such as the Government notings and other documents. The Public Information Officer (PIO) of the UDD replied on September 22, 2008, informing that the details sought regarding file the file ULC/1089/2123//ULC-2 were not available on the Department's record and therefore, the said information cannot be provided. It was also informed that part of the information was related to the office of Deputy Collector and hence that part of the RTI application was transferred to the said authority for further action. On first appeal, the Deputy Secretary of UDD asked the PIO to search the missing file and provide the details sought by Kulkarni immediately to him.
View of the Bombay High Court
As the information was not provided to the applicant, the matter finally came up before the Bombay High Court. A division bench of Justices Abhay Oka and A S Gadkari observed that “The case in hand is a classic example as to how the Government officers protecting their fellow officers tend to frustrate the basic intention of the legislature behind the enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005.” The bench held as under:-
1. Information under Right to Information (RTI) Act cannot be denied to a citizen.
2. Deputy Secretary of Urban Development Department in Maharashtra was directed to register an FIR against officers responsible for a ‘missing’ file.
3. The investigation must be completed within six months and it should be headed by an officer not below the rank of Deputy Commissioner of Police.
4. Costs of Rs 15,000 were imposed on the State Government for the lapse on part of officers which led to a UDD file going 'missing' as a result information under RTI Act couldn't be provided to an advocate.
The judgment would come like a shot in the arm for those who are unable to obtain the information due to the records being missing. It would also put a pressure on the officers to ensure that the record maintenance is done properly. However, to deal with the problem of record maintenance, a more systemic approach is needed on a sustained basis if real results are expected.
Citation: Vivek Vishnupant Kulkarni v. State of Maharashtra and others in WP (C) 6961 of 2012