This article has been written by Himanshu Batar from IMS Unison University and Curated by Naman Jain of Bennett University, Greater Noida
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the statement by Lord Acton stands true for every government system. The only way to counter this is by creating transparency between government officials and the public. Right to Information (RTI) has come into existence to fulfil the same requirement. In India, from its origin in 1975, RTI has developed and evolved a lot. However, the recent developments and decisions have resulted in a significant setback in the field of RTI
Evolution of RTI
Starting as a part of the election manifesto of the Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai, the RTI finally found its way to become a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution by the famous case of Mr. Kulwal v. Jaipur Municipal corporation. However, despite firm commitments from various governments, not much work was done in RTI. Efforts of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in 1994 revived the need for RTI and resulted in passing a law on RTI in Rajasthan in 2000. Another campaign, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) in 1996, with the constant demand for enactment of an RTI law, resulted in making Tamil Nadu the first state to pass an RTI law in 1997. Finally, the RTI Act 2005 was passed, which applies to the whole of India.
RTI got implemented after the case of Benette Coleman and company v. Union of India, in which it was held that the freedom of speech includes within its purview, the right of citizens to be informed. The scope of RTI developed gradually and started including giving information to the customers regarding the composition of food products, drugs, and cosmetics as a fundamental right after Ozair Hussain v. Union of India. In R.P. Limited v. Indian Express Newspaper, the Supreme court stated that people have the right to know, in order to take part in developmental schemes. The status of RTI was further elevated to a Human Right in the case of People’s Union for Civil Liberty v. Union of India. In Kumar v. Bangalore University, the Apex court held that the public authority cannot deny any document entirely on the grounds of confidentiality. Another significant development was from the case of Adesh Kumar v. Union of India, which laid down RTI cannot be denied on the grounds that the information the person is seeking is irrelevant. The case of Aabid Hussain v. CPIO, Jabalpur further raised the bar, as CIC remarked that long waiting for RTI response is a flagrant violation of the RTI Act. These cases show the continuous development in the field of RTI.
The recent judgment of Chief Information Commissioner V. The high court of Gujarat took a sudden back-step, in which, the SC stated that a valid reason is needed to file RTI in High courts. The same issue has harmed the basic principle of the Act taking the development of RTI a decade back. In the above case, the conflict broke between the two laws, i.e., RTI Act 2006 and Gujarat High Court Rules 1993. The former says there is no need for a reason to seek information under RTI; the later states that when a third party seeks certified copies of the documents of any case proceeding, their application must be supported with an affidavit stating the grounds on which the documents are required. The whole judgment was based on the analysis of a legal provision relevant to the issue at hand. The provision must be read in its entirety—a fundamental principle of legal reasoning. However, the Supreme court, in its analysis, unfortunately, overlooked the significant segments of legal provisions that resulted in setting an extremely low bar for RTI.
Another setback was seen in a recent plea by Samyak Gangwal, challenging the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of PMO, who refused to provide documents sought by him on the ground that PM Cares Fund is not a public authority under the RTI Act.
However, on June 2, the CPIO of PMO refused the information based on the fact that PM CARES is not considered as a public authority under the scope of the RTI Act. The plea that challenged the decision argued PM CARES is a body owned or/and controlled by the Prime Minister, ministers of Defence, Home Affairs, and Finance as its trustees, which are the parts or building blocks of the appropriate government coming under the ambit of RTI Act. Another petition on PM CARES FUND was dismissed and withdrawn as the petitioner approached the High Court without preferring an RTI application in the regard.
The petition claimed that within two months of its creation, the entire fund’s corpus stands at more or less Rs ten thousand crores. Therefore, the quantity was collected upon the strength of status lent by the prime minister’s workplace. The plea, filed through advocate Aditya Hooda, revealed in newspapers on May 31 that the PM CARES fund has refused to give away data sought by Harsha Kundakarni under the RTI Act, 2005 by claiming that the fund is not a ‘public authority’ within the scope of Act. “Therefore, the application of the petitioner or anyone else would additionally meet eternal fate. Thus, the exercise of exhausting the remedy by filing another application and filing attractiveness before the statutory authority could also be distributed within the interest of justice,” he said.
These recent judgments lowered the ambit of RTI and beat the reason for the enactment of the Act. Exclusion of PM CARES in the ambit of RTI will deny the transparency; the Act ought to provide. The same will also result in increased chances of corruption and fraud. These recent judgments need to be reviewed and revised to bring back the old progressive and developing self of RTI and a truly transparent government that will boost India’s progress.