Just as we have the Public Information Officer (PIO) in every public authority, there is a Records Officer (RO) in almost every government department who can be fined Rs 10,000 or imprisoned for five years if documents are lost or tampered. Too often, those who seek information from the government are being told that some file or the other is 'lost'; to tackle this we should take recourse to the laws pertaining to lost files, and demand action on that front.
The governing law on lost files of the Central government is to be found in Section 10 of Public Records Act, 1993 (see this link; each of the States has similar laws that govern the secure maintenance of their records.
What do these laws amount to, in the context of RTI applications? The various pieces of legislation dealing with lost files make it quite clear that no government employee can blandly say, 'File lost' to an information seeker. The laws spell out who is to be held responsible, and what is to be done in case documents or files are lost, misplaced or stolen. Therefore, under RTI, "File lost" can only be given as a reason for delay in providing information, but not as a reason for denial of information.
If a file is lost, there is a clear-cut procedure that the officer designated as "Records Officer" has to follow. This may be summarized as 'SRF' i.e.
- Search for the file
- Reconstruct the file, if it cannot be found
- Register an FIR against the person responsible for loss or misplacement.
Whoever contravenes any of the provisions of Section 4 or section 8 of Public Records Act, 1993 shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees, or with both.
Every records creating agency shall nominate one of its officers as records officer to discharge the functions under this Act.
Every records creating agency may set up such number of record rooms in such places as it deems fit and shall place each record room under the charge of a records officer.
The records officer shall, in the event of any unauthorised removal, destruction, defacement or alteration of any public records under his charge, forthwith take appropriate action for the recovery or restoration of such public records.
The records officer shall submit a report in writing to the Director General or as the case may be, the head of the Archives without any delay on any information about any unauthorised removal, destruction, defacement or alteration of any public record under his charge and about the action initiated by him and shall take action as he may deem necessary, subject to the directions, if any, given by Director General or, as the case may be, head of the Archives.
The records officer may seek assistance from any government officer or any other person for the purpose of recovery or restoration of public records and such officer or person shall render all assistance to the records officer.
Whoever contravenes any of the provisions of Section 4 or Section 8 shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees, or with both.
In some cases, it is permissible for public records to be classified, preserved, withdrawn or destroyed. These rules, for Central government documents,
can be found in the Public Records Rules, 1997 (see this link). Especially read the forms
given at the bottom of the Rules, particularly Form 8, which enables citizens to enroll as "Research Scholars" and study the documents at National
Archives of India. Many hidden treasures may lie in these archives, waiting to be discovered by you and me. India needs more such 'scholars'!!