It is common knowledge that the files in the government departments are often permanently misplaced or lost or deliberately destroyed leading to a lot of problems/ loss for the Government as well as the affected party. Sometimes, the government records are eliminated as a part of larger conspiracy to safeguard the erring officials.
The Government with a view to manage, administer and preserve public records of the Central Government, UTs, PSUs & Commissions/Committees of the Central Government legislated the Public Records Act, 1993. The term Public Records have been defined as any document, manuscript, file, microfilm, image, fax or a material produced by a computer pertaining to the Government. The Act gives power to the Central Government to regulate, supervise & coordinate with the administration & management of the public records.
It is the responsibility of the records officer to arrange, preserve & maintain the public records and he is authorised to take action in the event of unauthorised removal or destruction of the public records from his custody. It has been mandated under the Act that no public records shall be destructed/ disposed except as prescribed under the Act. Loss/ destruction or permanent misplacement of a public record is punishable with imprisonment up till 5 years and pecuniary fine of Rs 10000/- or both.
There have been a large number of cases under RTI wherein after taking into account the provisions of the Public Records Act, the SIC & CIC have categorically held that mere filing an FIR is no answer for a missing file but the PIO should reconstruct the file so that sought for information is made available to the applicant. The Commission ruled that neither lodging a FIR with the police nor denying information to a citizen under RTI under the pretext of a missing file is acceptable. An important order of the CIC states that “It is the duty of the PIO to make necessary efforts to trace the file and inform the same to the appellant in the form of an affidavit.” The CIC ordered for action against the PIO under the Public Records Act as well as the provisions of IPC.
In yet another case the Central Information Commissioner questioned the validity & requirement of FIR in such a case and stating thus:
“The Commission feels that lodging of FIR is not the remedy in such cases, as one cannot expect the Police to come to the office and trace the file. According to law, Police does not have any responsibility to trace the missing files, as they will come into picture only when there is theft of the files. It cannot be said that police should come to office and search for the files or things misplaced by negligence or deliberate action or by mistake etc.”
The CIC held the PIO fully responsible for missing files and stating that every public authority should designate a Public Records officer and the Public Records Act 1993 should be made applicable to a PIO. It was held thus:
“The public authority has a duty to designate ‘Public Records Officer’ as per Public Records Act, 1993. This Act is made to regulate the management, administration and preservation of public records of the Central Government, Union Territory Administrations, public sector undertakings, statutory bodies and corporations, commissions and committees constituted by the Central Government or a Union Territory Administration and matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
It is a usual phenomenon under RTI that the PIO states that the concerned file was not traceable in-spite of all possible efforts to trace the missing file. It is trite to refer to an older order on the issue of missing files which stated thus:
“… prima facie, public authority cannot deny the right of the appellant to get an alternative plot, by putting forward an excuse of missing file. The defence of missing file cannot be accepted even under the RTI Act. If the file is really not traceable, it reflects the inefficient and pathetic management of files by the Public Authority. If the file could not be traced in spite of best efforts, it is the duty of the respondent authority to reconstruct the file or develop a mechanism to address the issue raised by the appellant.”
The CIC also observed that if the Right to Information Act, 2005 is read along with Public Records Act, 1993 and Indian Penal Code thus:
“it will lead to serious consequences for those who lose the records, besides the disciplinary action from the top administration. The Right to Information Act cannot be effectively implemented without properly implementing the Public Records Act, 1993. But most employees and their bosses do not know that a law called Public Records Act exists in this country”.
If all these laws are put together, the CIC observed thus:“Appropriate action could be ordering an inquiry and holding the persons responsible for the disappearance of the files. There are three requirements, a) recovering the file, b) finding out which employee was responsible followed by disciplinary action and c) addressing problems arising out of ‘missing file’. No public authority has shown any such record that reflected their ‘appropriate action’.”
It is imperative that all public records should be digitalised. The whole public management should be paperless. In case hard copies are required, the same should be filed but the mandatory requirement of soft copies should not be compromised. The said data should be kept in E Lockers. This will enable permanence of Data and bring in both Transparency & Accountability in Public domain. Information would then be available on the click of a button and the purpose of RTI shall be fulfilled. The problem of loss/misplacement of important files would become History. This will also help in containing rampant Corruption in the Public Departments.
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