post by Ankush/Sanjeev Rana on 13 Jan 2017,Friday
Whistleblower’s decade long struggle again makes this elite school accountable to public
Lawrence School, Sanawar, which has been wriggling hard to escape from the confines of ‘Right to Information Act’ since last decade, has finally been brought within the ambit of RTI Act by the Central Information Commission, New Delhi, declaring it a ‘Public Authority’.
The decision came in the wake of directions from Himachal Pradesh High Court which had in February 2008 stayed the operation of earlier CIC decision dated January 25, 2008 wherein this school was declared as a public authority with further directions to the school headmaster to provide information requested by the applicant Dr Rajinder K Singla. It was on September 19, 2016 that the Division Bench of HP High Court comprising Chief Justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir and Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan quashed the CIC decision of 2008, reminding the case back to CIC to decide it afresh.
In December 2016, the CIC has again declared both the Lawrence School as well as the Society running this school as ‘Public Authority’ further directing them to appoint a PIO and First Appellate Authority and make all necessary disclosures as mandated by Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act, 2005, within a month from the receipt of CIC order. In his decision, Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu observed that to decide whether Lawrence School is public authority under Section 2(h)(d)(ii), it is required to be proved that the school is substantially financed by the Government as per the interpretation of the expression ‘substantially funded’ in section 2(h). As the entire land consisting of 127.47 acres with buildings, structures and trees thereon were considered as military lands and Defence Department transferred all that to the society, it proves that the Government has substantially funded the society to run this school by giving land and buildings. This fulfils one of the conditions prescribed under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, to declare the school as public authority.
The Commission in view of the above holds that the respondent ‘Lawrence School’ and the society running it as Public Authority as defined in section 2(h)(d)(ii) of RTI Act, as the essential ingredient of “substantial financing” has been established in the present case. Also, it is reiterated that even if information held by a respondent society, assuming that it is not a public authority or a private body, will be still an ‘information’ as stated in section 2(f) “information relating to any private body which can be assessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.” This information is accessible under law by a public authority. The Registrar of Societies is the public authority through whom any person can have access to that information.
While analyzing the issue, the Commission recorded the substantive points that arose out of the contentions and perusals of records according to which the land on which the school is located was purchased by one Mr Lawrence, a British officer, in the year 1947. When India became independent, there were no claimants to the land, and the buildings or the school during 1947. According to Article 296 of the Constitution of India, “any property in the territory of India which, if this constitution had not come into operation, would have accrued to His Majesty or, as the case may be, to the ruler of an Indian state by escheat or lapse, or as bona vacantia for want of a rightful owner, shall, if it is property situate in a state vest in such state, and shall in any other case, vest in the Union.”
The Commission records: “The fact that learned counsel submitted that though entire land was with the same society since the beginning, the Government was benevolent enough not to disturb the functioning of school and for which it has transferred the entire property to the same society, shows that legally the land and buildings belonged to the Government of India, and the Defence Department transferred it to the society. All this prove that there is a substantial funding to the society and the school. This shows that the Government has substantially funded the society to run this school by giving land and buildings.
The Commission has gone further to refer to a landmark order of the Supreme Court in Thaiappalam Ser. Coop. Bank Ltd. & Ors. Vs. State of Kerala [2013(12) SCALE 527] in which the Apex Court has pronounced litmus test that if the substantial assistance provided by the state is withdrawn, body shouldn’t be able to function in which case that body has to be considered as substantially funded and thus, it has to be declared as the public authority. If the Defence Department cancels/withdraws everything, the school cannot function at all. Hence, on application of this test to the Lawrence School, it can be declared a public authority under 2(h). It has also been stated that the school entirely runs on funds by its alumni which clearly shows that he school is in no position to run on its own.
The Commission also observed: “Moreover, the school is being run by a society registered under Section 19 of the Societies Registration Act, 1860 which imposed an obligation on society to provide information to any person. Section 2(f) of RTI provides access to information held by private bodies through any other legislation providing for RTI. Hence, under 2(f) of RTI read with section 19 of Societies Registration Act, 1860, the registered society running the Lawrence School has a duty to provide information.”
Recall that Singla, who was working as Senior Biology Teacher in this school, had on 28th December 2006 sought from affiliating board CBSE information relating to this school like school rules, qualifications of teachers, student fees, members of school management committee etc. and five days later, i.e. on January 2, 2007, the school has removed him from service, abruptly, giving him 3 months’ advance salary in lieu of notice period. Do the facts of this story really speak of implementation of ‘Right to Information’ in letter and true spirit in this country which promises its citizenry information within 30 days by simply filing an application spending a fee of rupees ten only?