Trashing its own earlier order, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has held that “larger public interest” cannot be a ground for denial of information under the Right to Information Act.
Information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi overruled an earlier CIC order making public interest a ground for denial of information stating that the earlier ruling was made without consulting the Right to Information (RTI) Act and court judgments in this regard.
“RTI law does provide for invoking ‘concept of public interest’ for denial of information,” Gandhi said, while asking the public information officer of Banaras Hindus University (BHU) to provide information to Mangla Ram Jat of Rajasthan, who had sought details of the university’s medical entrance examination.
The university had taken shelter under the 2007 order of information commissioner Padma Balakrishnan, in which information about answer key and question booklet of medical examination at AIIMS was denied as it did not serve “larger public
While overruling Balakrishnan, Gandhi observed that the CIC cannot on its own impose exemptions and substitute their own views for those for the Parliament.
“It (CIC) cannot take upon itself the role of the legislature and import new exemptions hitherto not known,” he said in his order on December 31.
He also made it clear that the Act leaves no liberty with the adjudicating authorities to read law beyond what is stated explicitly. “There is absolutely no ambiguity in the Act and tinkering with it in the name of larger public interest is beyond the scope of the adjudicating authorities,” he said.
Gandhi, who was an RTI activist in Mumbai before joining the commission, said that public interest could be applied only if any of the exemptions under Section 8 apply.
Public interest is not applicable for exemptions under Section 8 if it impinges national security, is forbidden by court of law, causes breach of privilege of legislative bodies, impede investigation and information received in confidence from foreign government. While denying information regarding Cabinet papers, commercial secrets and fiduciary relationship, the information officer will have to justify that providing the information will not serve public interest.
“Even if exemptions apply, the Act enjoins that if there is a large public interest, the information will have to be given.
There is no requirement in the law of establishing any public interest for information to be obtained by a citizen,” he order said.
Under the Act, he said “providing information was the rule and denial an exception”.
“Any attempt to constrict or deny information to the citizen without the explicit sanction of the law will be going against rule of the law,” the order said.