It is common knowledge that public information officers often do not furnish the information sought by the applicant under Right to Information Act (RTI). Is an appeal to the appellate authority of the Information Commission the only remedy? Or would failure to furnish information without valid reason constitute a deficiency in service for which compensation can be sought by filing a consumer complaint? This issue has been decided by the National Commission in a trendsetting judgment.
Case Study: Dr S P Thirumala Rao, a consulting physician in Mysore, was upset that some agency had dug up the footpath in front of his clinic for laying telephone cables through PVC pipes but had failed to restore it after completion of the work. The damaged footpath and the projecting pipe was causing obstruction to his patients as well as to pedestrians. He submitted two RTI applications to the Mysore City Municipal Corporation seeking information about the telephone service provider
Who was responsible for this?
As the information was not furnished within the prescribed period, he filed a consumer complaint before the District Consumer Forum claiming compensation and costs from the municipal corporation. In its defence, the corporation claimed that the information could not be furnished within the prescribed period due to heavy workload. It also claimed that the work was carried out by Reliance and the Government of India through the Department of Telecommunications, and hence the corporation could not be held responsible for the same. The jurisdiction of the consumer forum was also challenged.
The forum observed that the RTI Act bars the jurisdiction of courts, but not the consumer fora as the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) is meant to be an additional remedy. Further, the RTI Act does not deal with compensation for deficiency in service. Hence, a complaint filed to claim compensation for deficiency in service for failure to furnish the information would be maintainable under the CPA. Since delay was admitted, the forum awarded token damages of Rs 500 and costs of Rs 100.
The corporation challenged this order before the Karnatake State Commission. It argued that since the RTI provided for an appeal against failure to furnish the information sought, the proper remedy would have been to approach the appellate authority, and not the consumer forum. Hence, the complaint ought to be dismissed. The State Commission upheld this contention, allowed the appeal and dismissed the complaint.
Dr Rao then approached the National Commission by filing a Revision Petition. Being a matter of public importance, the commission appointed advocates Aditya Narain and Astha Tyagi as amicus curaie. In its judgment delivered by Justice R K Batta, presiding member, on behalf of the Bench comprising himself and S K Naik, the commission observed that the settled law was that even if a particular law barred the jurisdiction of courts, a complaint could still be filed under the provisions of the CPA as it provided an additional remedy.
The RTI Act did not bar the jurisdiction of the consumer fora. Also, the provision for appeal under the RTI Act was restricted to the failure to furnish the information sought, but there was no provision to claim compensation for deficiency in service. An applicant under the RTI Act has to pay fees for getting the information, and hence he acquires the status of a consumer. If there is any deficiency in service in respect of providing such information, a complaint could be filed under the CPA for claiming compensation.
With this reasoning, the National Commission set aside the order of the State Commission and restored that of the District Forum. [Judgment dated 28.05.2009 in the case of Dr S P Thirumala Rao v/s Municipal Commissioner, Mysore City Municipal Corporation.
This landmark and historic judgment is a new milestone, both for RTI as well as consumer activists, for holding the authorities accountable to the citizen.