To disclose the office address, pincode & phone number that were already present on the letter head, a customs official in Chennai wanted the RTI applicant to sign a MoU & Non-Disclosure agreement to disclose these details.
Common sense is sometimes very uncommon. That is what Mr C J Karira realized after filing an application under RTI with the Central Board of Excise & Customs (CBEC). There cannot be a funnier response than this to a RTI application.
What kind of information was sought from CBEC?
Mr Karira sought the following information from the head office of CBEC. Among other things, he sought the addresses of all field offices of CBEC along with official telephone numbers and email addresses.
It has to be noted that all the information sought by him should have been proactively disclosed as per section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) act. Ministries & Departments of both the Central & State Governments that have field offices at state & district levels usually disclose the details of the officers responsible for implementing the RTI act etc. at the field level, on the department’s main website. For instance, Postal Department has all such details on the main website. Similarly, the Income Tax department also has these details on the main website.
How did CBEC respond?
Even the CBEC has some of these details on the main website. The easiest way to respond to the RTI application would have been to provide the URL that has these details. In addition, it could have also provided the missing details if any. Instead, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of CBEC transferred the application to all the sub-ordinate offices across India. Can there be a greater waste of public money (read postal & other charges)?
Response from the Office of Commissioner of Customs in Chennai is the BEST
To disclose the office address, pin code, office telephone number and office email id, the CPIO from the Office of Commissioner of Customs in Chennai wanted Mr. Karira to first sign a MoU as per the ‘Data Sharing Policy’ of CBEC as well as sign a ‘Non-Disclosure Agreement’ before disclosing such information.The funniest part is that the official letter head on which the reply was sent already had the office address, pin code, office telephone number. For something that is already there on the CBEC website and on the official letter head, the official wanted the applicant to sign a MoU & a Non-Disclosure agreement.
What is problematic with this response?
The Chennai official’s response is problematic for multiple reasons. It goes onto corroborate the experience of some RTI applicants who found a set of bureaucrats to be with a closed mind-set & do not wish to be open & transparent.
The information sought by the applicant has to be provided as per the provisions of RTI act since the RTI act overrides any other law regarding the disclosure of information. The official can only refuse to provide information citing any of the exemption clause in Section 8 of the RTI act. The official should not even have referred to the ‘Data Sharing Policy’ in this case.
Even if he had to, it is amply clear that the official hasn’t read the ‘Data Sharing Policy’ of CBEC. The policy clearly demarcates ‘Sensitive’ & ‘Non-Sensitive’ data. Among other things, the policy says that data which is mandated by statute, other Acts in force are to be categorized as non-sensitive. It also goes onto say that data placed on CBEC’s website in compliance with the RTI Act also will be treated as ‘Non-Sensitive’. The address & other details as requested by Mr. Karira are clearly ‘Non-Sensitive’ in nature since they are already on the website and also mandated by the RTI act. Instead, the official treated this information as sensitive and wanted the applicant to sign a non-disclosure agreement.While this sheer waste of time & money for both the government and the applicant can’t be ignored, the bigger issue is the closed mind-set of such officials in a world that is becoming more open by the day.