A public interest litigation (PIL) filed in July against Bollywood film Jism 2 — 'for promoting a call girl' — which featured porn star Sunny Leone, highlights how some PIL applications make a mockery of the judicial system. While the system of PILs and Right to Information (RTI) are invaluable to our democracy, a few self-appointed activists have been filing absurd petitions and about issues that neither concern the public nor advocate change.
Meet ML Sharma, an SC lawyer and an incessant petitioner, who in July, filed a petition against then presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee for garnering support from MPs/MLAs while holding the finance minister's office. The court, headed by Justice Aftab Alam, threw it out saying the court cannot be a 'theatre for [Sharma's] farcical play'. He was penalised — not a first for him — for filing a 'frivolous' PIL.
And the number of such instances have steadily grown. The Citizens' Report on Governance and Development, 2010 states the number of petitions, letters filed in Supreme Court in 2008 was 24,666, a substantial rise from the 1990s, says Videh Upadhyay, advocate and author of Public Interest Litigation in India: Concepts, Cases, Concerns.Many believe that the rise in frivolous PILs is because courts have become more receptive to diverse cases. "This has encouraged many to file frivolous PILs," says Upadhyay.
It is not just the PIL system that is abused. The RTI Act, introduced by UPA-I in 2005, is also a casualty. Even in its short lifespan of seven years, bizarre RTI cases are not uncommon. One such case is that of Rakesh Agarwal. He filed an RTI after being arrested for strip-protesting at a convention where the PM was speaking. His application asks, "do citizens of India need the PM's office's permission... on what underwear we can wear?"
The strict RTI Act makes information officers liable to answer every application (Under Sec 20 & Sec 20) — however absurd. "This leads to an exhaustion of resources," says former central information commissioner MM Ansari.
Rise of awareness has led to the increase in RTI queries filed — from 8,864 in 2005-06 it to 101,453 in 2010-11. Ansari estimates the cost of answering each RTI to be between Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 50,000. The trend of filing absurd RTIs, as the former CIC puts it, is quite rampant and accounts for more than 80% of applications.