The Central Information Commission (CIC) on January 29 said an Army Welfare Housing Organisation (AWHO) official not providing information on sale of flats in Noida casts a "rather murky shadow on the affairs of the organisation" and referred the matter to the Army Chief.
The transparency panel made the comments while hearing an RTI applicant's plea seeking information from the Army Headquarters on sale of flats of a defaulter private builder's project at Noida's Sector 143 to Army personnel as advertised by the AWHO in February 2018.
During the hearing AWHO Secretary Colonel Abhishek said he would not be sharing the information under the RTI with the Army Headquarters even after the CIC's orders.
To this, Information Commissioner Divya Prakash Sinha marked his order to the Army Chief, who is the AWHO's patron, to "reflect upon the obscurity in the affairs of the AWHO exhorted by its secretary".
Under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, only public authorities, which fulfil given criteria under the law, are answerable to applications seeking information.
The Delhi High Court had observed that the AWHO is not a public authority under the Act.
However, the RTI Act also empowers a chief public information officer (CPIO) of a public authority to gather information from a private body which can be accessed by it under any other law in force for the time being.
The applicant approached the CIC, the highest adjudicating body in RTI Act matters, after the Army Headquarters did not provide any information.
For the hearing, Col Abhishek was accompanied by the Army Headquarters' CPIO, even though he was not required to be present or make any submissions, Sinha noted.
"Col Abhishek, Secretary, AWHO nonetheless insisted that even if the commission treats the AHWO as a private body and directs the CPIO, IHQ of the MoD (Ministry of Defence) (Army), to access information from the AWHO in accordance with Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, he will not provide any information.
"Even further, he emphasised vehemently that if the AWHO allows access of information to the IHQ of MoD (Army) on the commission's directions, it will be set as a precedent," Sinha said.
Noting that the assertions of the AWHO representative to not part with information "casts a rather murky shadow on the affairs of the organisation", the commissioner marked his order to the Army Chief to take note of his observations and "reflect upon the obscurity in the affairs of the AWHO exhorted by its secretary."
"In other words, the contention and the apprehensions of the representative of the AWHO are inconsequential to the statutory duty cast upon the CPIO, Army HQ, by virtue of Section 2(f) and 2(j) of the RTI Act.
"Therefore, it will not be an inappropriate deduction that the conduct of the representative of the AWHO depicts a pre-emptive obstruction to the right to information of the appellant," Sinha said.
The AWHO representative said like the organisation's other office bearers, he is also a serving army officer working on deputation with the AWHO, which has its headquarters at Kashmir House on the MoD's premises and for which rent is paid.
The very purpose of incorporation of the AWHO necessitates probity and transparency in its functioning and even if it is not amenable to the RTI Act, it cannot shroud information accessible under the Act to a public authority on the "pretence of setting precedents", Sinha said.
He also mentioned that the RTI application was filed in context of a report, published a few days after the AWHO's advertisement, about builders who allegedly diverted crores of rupees for completion of projects thus stalling possession of flats to buyers for years together.
"It was reported that the Noida Authority has issued notices to these private builders and since the private builder project under reference was also one of the alleged defaulters, this triggered the appellant's curiosity as a potential buyer," Sinha underlined.
In the said circumstances, the fact that the AWHO representative appeared before the bench with an "obstinate assertion" that no information will be shared, "seemingly validates" the apprehension of the RTI appellant regarding the fate of the AWHO-sponsored sale of the alleged defaulter project, he pointed out.