Which law protects info seekers?

By Madabhushi Sridhar | THE HANS INDIA |   Jan 23,2018 , 04:02 AM IST

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Security for RTI applicant is an important subject not dealt with by the RTI Act. Does it mean that Act cares not for the lives of the applicants? No. If a person’s life is under threat simply because he asked for some information, which is a legally guaranteed right, who should be responsible? 

Harinder Dhingra filed an urgent petition saying that he was receiving multiple threats to his life and safety in the past 24 hours, to stop his efforts to secure information about the impersonation scandal in the appointments of LDCs and SSO (Inspectors) in ESIC, Faridabad. He also stated that because the ESIC was not implementing the orders of CIC, threats to him had been started.  

He wrote to the Commission that he filed representations to the official email IDs of Haryana police, the Ministry and the ESIC today (i.e, January 5, 2018). The appellant approached the Commission through his representative during the lunch time and also forwarded the copies of his representations to the three aforementioned public authorities.
 
The appellant filed various RTI applications wherein directions were issued on 24th March, 2017 which was partly compiled with by ESIC and the matter was also referred to the CBI. The Commission directed the ESIC to provide information regarding appointment/recruitment of Social Service Officers (Inspectors). 

It was noticed that though there was a serious suspicion about impersonation, as visible from the contentions of both the parties, nothing tangible could come out of the exercise under RTI and other investigations. One of the reasons for this is weeding out of records like the copies of admit cards etc. 

The officers representing the public authority represented to the Commission that the ESIC had learnt from its past experiences like this and was making foolproof arrangements to prevent any possibility of impersonation in the examination. The officers also submitted about the measures to increase the transparency and publish the results on website immediately after the completion of the evaluation along with the merit list to prevent the irregularities.

The Commission felt that there was a need to inquire into the allegations of impersonation and irregularities raised by the appellant. The Commission recommended a follow-up action on letter dated 09.08.2017 and reminder dated 30.09.2017 addressed to Joint Director (TFC), CBI, requesting them to use the services of the handwriting experts through CFSL to bring out the persons involved in the impersonation scandal in ESIC. 

The Commission directed the Central Forensic Science Laboratory to inform the appellant when they would respond to the letter dated 25.09.2017 forwarded from the Additional Commissioner of ESIC and provide a certified copy of their conclusions to the appellant within 15 days from the date of preparing such letter/report, and the CPIO of ESIC is directed to forward this Order to CPIO concerned, Central Forensic Science Laboratory and follow-up accordingly. The Commission directs the respondent authority to inform the appellant about the progress in the investigation and action taken on the serious issue raised by the appellant.

The Commission also directed the public authority to provide certified copies of the extract of weeding out register and also directed the Chief Vigilance Officer, ESIC, to inform the status of inquiry, along with latest action status, within 15 days from the date of receipt of the order. Dhingra also submitted that: “I am pursuing this case of fraud played on deserving candidates, who lost out on the jobs to non-deserving candidates, which in turn turned this Mafia against me, who can be seen roaming around my residence enquiring about me.

The delay in not providing information by ESIC has exposed me to risk of being physically harmed and as such it is prayed that ESIC is directed to provide information and also put on public domain so that risk to the appellant is minimized.”

It was personally represented that after this Commission ordered the public authority to furnish the copies of report of Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), who analysed the admit-cards and attendance sheets, and the orders were uploaded on the official website of the Commission on 30.12.2017, the threats started pouring in. 

It was represented that some unidentified people passing by him, when he was walking in his colony, threatened him to stop pursuing the RTI cases, and were leaving the scene immediately, even when Dhingra was asking him to come home and discuss. 

The appellant said that such incidents happened at different times involving different people in the last 24 hours. The Commission found that threats were serious in nature and risk to life and liberty of appellant increased. He also wanted the action-related information on his representation for protection filed before the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Chairman ESIC and the Director General of Police, Haryana. 

In view of the urgency and seriousness of the matters, the Commission considered that this complaint of non-compliance as an immediate extension of second appeals in the above referred numbers and directed the authorities concerned to initiate measures to secure the life and liberty of the appellant and his family members and inform him the steps taken to assure him of protection. The CIC order says:

A.The Commission directs Shri Raj Kumar, IAS, Director General of ESIC, to take necessary measures to ensure the life and safety of the appellant Mr. Harinder Dhingra and his family members, and file compliance report within 48 hours.
B.The Commission directs Shri Arun Kumar, Insurance Commissioner, (Revenue & Benefit, Recruitment, Inspection & Actuarial, Pubic Relations, P&A Except E-II, E-IV & E-VI), Ministry of Labour and Employment, to initiate necessary steps to secure the life and safety of the appellant and his family members, besides instructing speedy investigation and strict action against the culprits, who are obviously behind the threats, and because any delay in investigation might increase the risk of appellant and others, and file compliance report within 48 hours.  
C.The Commission also directs Shri Baljit Singh Sandhu, Director General of Police, Haryana, to urgently act on this complaint and provide adequate security to Mr. Harinder Dhingra and his family members, besides, inform him the action taken and submit compliance report to the Commission within 48 hours. 
D.The Commission also directs the CPIO, ESIC Hqrs., Faridabad, to comply the order dated 11.12.2017 and send the compliance report within 10 days.

The Whistle Blower Protection Bill 2011 is part of a drive to eliminate corruption in the country's bureaucracy and it was passed by the Lok Sabha on 27 December 2011 and by Rajya Sabha on 21 February 2014 and received the President's assent on 9 May 2014. 

This is “an Act to establish a mechanism to receive complaints relating to disclosure on any allegation of corruption or willful misuse of power or willful misuse of discretion against any public servant and to inquire or cause an inquiry into such disclosure and to provide adequate safeguards against victimization of the person making such complaint and for matters connected therewith and incidental thereto”. The salient features are: 

  • What: It seeks to protect whistle blowers, i.e., persons making a public interest disclosure related to an act of corruption, misuse of power, or criminal offense by a public servant.
  • Who: Anybody can be a whistle blower: Any public servant or any other person including a non-governmental organisation may make such a disclosure to the Central or the State Vigilance Commission.
  • Identity: It insists on disclosure of identity. Every complaint has to include the identity of the complainant.
  • Confidentiality: However, the Act protected identity from disclosure: The Vigilance Commission shall not disclose the identity of the complainant except to the head of the department if he deems it necessary. The Act penalises any person who has disclosed the identity of the complainant.
  • Penalising complainant: The Act has a controversial clause that prescribes penalties for knowingly making false complaints.
Whether this Act extends protection to the information seekers under RTI Act? Whether information seekers fall under the category of ‘persons who made disclosures to State or Central Vigilance Commissioner’? 

(Based on decision in CIC/ESICO/A/2017/142254, Harinder Dhingra v. PIO, ESIC, Faridabad, on 5.1.2018)