Government authorities often hide behind exemption clauses in the RTI Act to refuse information without explaining the basis for invoking the exemption.
On Friday, the Central Information Commission tried to block this escape route, threatening to penalise bureaucrats who spontaneously invoke the exemption list to bar access to information.
The warning came in course of a directive to Banaras Hindu University to release the inquiry report into the death of a student at its Sir Sunder Lal Hospital, allegedly due to medical negligence in January last year. The death had sparked off riots at the hospital. The commission observed that the BHU Registrar had adopted a “callous and casual approach” and used two exemptions to bar access to the report “as a pretext to deny the information”.
“The Commission now wants to send the message loud and clear that quoting provisions of Section 8 of the RTI Act ad libitum to deny the information requested,” the commission warned, without giving any justification as to how these provisions are applicable is “simply unacceptable and clearly amounts to malafide denial of legitimate information”. Such refusals, it went on, would attract penalties under the law.
The BHU case wasn’t the first time that public authorities had displayed disregard for the law and the commission did not think that it was going to be the last either. There have been cases where authorities have cited provisions that do not apply to a case besides invoking sections that don’t exist.
The commission has thus decided to use Friday’s decision to send a message to erring authorities. The BHU Registrar has also been asked to showcause within 30 days why he should not be ordered to pay the penalty.