The Prime Minister’s Office has said it has the right to not reveal internal government documents using which an applicant may initiate civil or criminal proceedings in court against the government or officials for alleged illegal and unconstitutional acts.
PMO’s stance came as part of a reply to the whistle-blower forest officer, Sanjiv Chaturvedi, after he dragged the PMO to the Central Information Commission for denying information under the RTI Act.
Chaturvedi has been fighting a battle for over seven years against the Haryana government over several scams in the forestry sector that he had highlighted only to be repeatedly chargesheeted, suspended and harassed by the state.
He asked the PMO and the department of personnel and training to reveal information, internal documents and correspondence carried out with various parliamentarians about a controversial note the DoPT had authored in the matter.
The prime minister is the Cabinet minister in charge of the DoPT, and the minister of state in PMO oversees the department’s work.
The confidential note was provided under RTI to a Haryana government officer indicted by the Centre in the scams and has since then helped the state government in blocking probes by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
In October 2013, at least four MPs from different parties wrote to the PM over the controversy and the role of the PMO and the DoPT in it.
Letters were written by Basudeb Acharia (CPI-M), Prabodh Panda (CPI), Kushal Tiwari (BSP) and Rama Devi (BJP).
Acharia wrote, “The nexus with corrupt elements (of DoPT) was so strong that even the so-called confidential note sent to the PMO was supplied almost immediately to the accused persons.”
Tiwari, called the episode “shameful”, and said, “All these shenanigans were aimed solely to bail out certain corrupt politicians and bureaucrats from an independent CBI investigation.”
This forced the PMO to hold a meeting on the matter calling in officers of DoPT and the environment ministry.
The fact that parliamentarians had written and the PMO held a meeting got reported in the media, but what decision the government had taken on Chaturvedi’s future and the confidential note remained a mystery, forcing Chaturvedi to file more RTIs with the PMO.
The PMO refused to reply.
Chaturvedi went in to the first appeal and the appellate authority in the PMO ordered that information on the decisions taken in the meeting, the letters of the parliamentarians and government’s response to them should be shared immediately.
The PMO continued to remain mute overruling the appellate authority -- something not permitted under the RTI law.
The day CIC was to hear the case, the PMO hand-delivered a reply to the officer, denying the information and instead threatened that action could be taken against him for repeatedly approaching the PMO.
It said giving the information to the officer held “the potentiality to affect handling of such cases on prompt basis.”
Calling the government a “third party” in the case, it said it chose to keep the information confidential as the officer had threatened to go to court against officers of the PMO and the DoPT who he alleged had colluded with the Haryana government against him.
“Confidentiality can thus be deepened to be inherently implicit in the case,” the PMO said.
“Clearly, the government cannot be compelled to give documents on the basis of which certain internal decisions were taken for instituting the litigation against itself,” it added taking the line of defence a private individual is permitted under the law in denying potentially self-incriminating evidence.
Info Chaturvedi sought from PMO
In 2010, the Union environment ministry formed a panel to probe the scams alleged by Sanjiv Chaturvedi after he pleaded with the President for help.
The committee prima facie found collusion of senior officials and politicians of Haryana, including those in Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s office, in the scams and named many for harassing the officer.
It recommended a CBI inquiry.
The Central Vigilance Commission endorsed the inquiry report and recommended a CBI probe, but the state refused to institute such an inquiry claiming the central government officials had colluded with Chaturvedi.
Unable to initiate a CBI inquiry without state’s concurrence, the Union environment ministry -- the cadre controlling authority of the forest services -- came to the officer’s rescue four times using the rarely deployed Presidential orders under the All India Services rules to protect him against illegal decisions of the state government in 2008, 2011, 2013 and in 2014.
But an intervention by the Prime Minister’s office went against Chaturvedi.
Union minister of state in the Prime Minister’s office and in-charge of the department of personnel and training V Narayansamy intervened personally to put in a confidential note to the PMO that the environment ministry had erred in constituting the 2010 inquiry into the scams and termed it ‘ultra-vires’.
The confidential note, provided within days under RTI to an officer indicted by the environment ministry report, came in handy for the Haryana government in its defence.
Chaturvedi has been trying to dig the background internal documents and process that went behind this leaked confidential note of the PMO using the RTI Act.