The advice of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to national carrier Air India, effectively barring it from sharing information regarding the prime minister's charter flights with RTI applicants, has come under scrutiny.
Speaking to The Quint, former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said that the advice has no legal basis and that Air India is under no compulsion to follow it.
The December 2016 directive, sent to Air India via email, came to light in March 2018 - when the airline denied information to an RTI applicant, Retired Commodore Lokesh Batra, attaching the PMO's email.
According to the PMO's directive, information regarding the PM's air travel cannot be disclosed via RTI applications under clause (g) of Section 8 (1) of the RTI Act. An RTI applicant can be denied under the said clause if it endangers the life of a person.
Batra, however, says he cannot understand how information pertaining to only dates of the invoices of his foreign trips endangers the prime minister.
Commodore Lokesh Batra, RTI activistI simply asked them to share the dates of the invoices because huge amount of public money is involved in PM's foreign trips. How am I endangering the life of the prime minister just by asking the dates of invoices? I didn't ask any details related to the preparation of his trips.
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Air India, on the other hand, told Batra on 21 March, that their hands are tied.
"We never deny any information which is available as per our records of accounts department. As per provisions in the Act, we are not supposed to supply any copy of our document or as per section 7(1) of the Act. Which is informed by PMO," reads Air India's email to Batra.
Batra had earlier filed an RTI with the PMO, regarding bills raised on the PM's foreign trips. Citing the same clause (g) under Section 8(1), the PMO had declined information to the applicant.
However, Batra approached the Central Information Commission (CIC), which ordered PMO to comply.
"During the hearing, the Commission observed that the appellant's motive is to improve governance and transparency in settling the bills of the PM's foreign/domestic visits as public money is involved. The loss of public money can add to the burden of tax payers," reads CIC's October 2016 judgement on clause (g) Section 8 (1) of the RTI Act.
Shailesh Gandhi, former Information Commissioner with the CIC, says that the PMO's stand is completely flawed.
Shailesh Gandhi, former Information Commissioner, CICThe PMO is completely flawed in saying that information cannot be shared under this section, this information cannot endanger Prime Minister or anybody's life... this section could have been applicable in scenario had the query been on PM's foreign trips in the next one year but it is not so here.
Gandhi further alleges that "such an advise from the PMO is not as per the law," and asserts that "Air India is under no compulsion follow such advise."
Batra says that he has asked Air India to reconsider its decision or else he will take the matter to the CIC. "You need to follow the law of the land and not get influenced by any external instructions. In any case, my RTI has not asked for any documents but information on dates which even PMO, MoCA & MEA are providing. I request you to think over and send me a final response before I file a case with the CIC," Batra wrote to Air India.