While the Union Cabinet’s decision to withdraw the amendments proposed to the Right to Information Act (RTIA) in 2006 is good news for the citizens of the country, the recent Supreme Court ruling could damage the sunshine law critically.
In September, the court ordered that all Information Commissions (IC) must have two-member benches, of which one must be a retired judge. At present, single commissioners hear and decide most cases. This will hugely delay the effective disposal of cases by ICs.
The introduction of retired judges will mean only lawyers will appear. This will displace the ordinary citizens who come directly. Since 85% of the cases need no legal interpretation, there is no rationale for the judgement.
Out of 35 countries that have ICs, no country has the above requirement. If we take into account three other judgements of the apex court in the last one year, they show that the court is more concerned about information that should not be given.
One of these states: “The RTI Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration or to destroy the peace, harmony among its citizen. Nor it should be converted into a tool of oppression and intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.” Are the Supreme Court’s pronouncements in the last year in line with the earlier ones, which laid the path for the RTIA?
There are two other criticisms of the RTIA, both of which have come from the highest quarters: first, citizens are using the information they get via the law to criticise mistakes, and second, officials spend too much time in answering queries.
In my view, citizens must monitor their government and this is an essential part of democracy and good governance. One of the primary aims of transparency is to uncover mistakes/wrongdoing by citizens, so that their governments draw the right lessons and improve.
The second allegation that too much time is being spent on queries, I think this is a result of not understanding certain sections of the RTIA that ensures that government officers do not have to disproportionately divert their resources to answer the questions.
Then there is the issue of invasion of privacy. Most of these concerns relate to disclosure of travel, medical and other details of expenditures by public servants from public funds. In the PUCL/ADR judgement, the Supreme Court had recognised the citizen’s right to information about the affairs of those who want to be public servants. It is strange that the citizen’s right to get information about those who are public servants is now being called an invasion of privacy!
Then there is the fear that a blanket extension of the Act to public-private partnerships (PPPs) may discourage private enterprises. All the PPPs have substantial funding by the government and must disclose information to citizens under the RTIA.
Citizens must discuss the Supreme Court judgements on RTIA. If they don’t do so, the RTIA could be weakened significantly.
Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner
The views expressed by the author are personal