A person filed an RTI application seeking information regarding a global tender for a grid-connected solar park. The concerned Public Information Officer sat on the RTI application for months. Later, the Public Information Officer rejected the application on the ground that the applicant and one of the companies that participated in the above-mentioned tender were represented by the same lawyer. Therefore, the said applicant filed an appeal.
Transparency and accountability are essential tenets of a democracy. Access to information concerning the functioning of public bodies is a step that promotes these principles. The Right to Information Act, 2005 (hereinafter the “the RTI Act”) was designed for “citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities”. Thus the letter and spirit of the RTI Act promote transparency and accountability and consequently check corruption and malpractices in governance.
The RTI Act is a comprehensive legal tool as it provides the right to access information held with public authorities and lists out exceptions under which information can be withheld. The Act, also provides a mechanism to appeal in case such information is denied. Any person may make a request in writing or in electronic form to seek information held by, or under control of a public authority. An important pillar of the RTI Act is that one need not spell out the reason for seeking information. Once such a request is received, the Public Information Officer concerned is mandated to either furnish the information sought or reject the request within 30 days (see Section 7 of the RTI Act, 2005).
The Supreme Court of India, in the case of Union of India v. Namit Sharma – 2013 (10) SCC 309 held that “while deciding whether a citizen should or should not get particular information which is held by or under the control of any public authority, the Information Commission does not decide a dispute between two or more parties concerning their legal rights other than their right to get information in possession of a public authority. This function obviously is not a judicial function, but an administrative function conferred by the Act on the Information Commission.” Thus, the role of the Public Information Officer is just to see whether the information sought may be provided or denied within the four corners of the RTI Act. He need not bother about the merit of the information sought or settling of the dispute between the two or more parties.
The RTI Act provides for denial of information sought based on individual privacy and protection of national secrets etc., with a view that transparency should be balanced with individual privacy, public and national interests. Hence, the information sought can be refused only if it falls within the ambit of exemptions under section 8 & 9 of the RTI Act. In Bhagat Singh v Chief Information Commissioner & Ors. –Delhi High Court WP(C) No.3114/2007 , it has been held that “access to information under Section 3 of the Act, is the rule and exemptions under Section 8, the exception. Section 8 being a restriction on this fundamental right, must, therefore, be strictly construed.” Since the Supreme Court has observed that exemptions should be rigidly interpreted, therefore, the information sought cannot be denied on grounds other than those specified under the Act. Said differently, grounds of denial of the information can not be interpreted benevolently and liberally.
But here a question arises – what if the information sought has been rejected without any basis? An appellate mechanism for a first and second appeal has also been incorporated under Section 19 of the RTI Act. Rightly, in the appeal proceedings, the burden to prove that the information was justifiably denied rests on the Public Information Officer concerned. Such officers may be able to discharge this burden only if the reason for rejecting the application is covered by the exemptions under section 8 & 9 of the RTI Act. An illustration of the exemptions includes; information expressly forbidden by order of a court or tribunal, information relating to trade secrets, information received in confidence from a foreign government, information, the disclosure of which would lead to a copyright infringement etc.
In the example cited above, the ground for rejecting the RTI application was frivolous and not covered by the exemptions listed under section 8 & 9 of the RTI Act. Further, the burden to prove that such rejection is covered by the exemptions under the RTI Act rests on the public information officer. If the public information officer cannot discharge the burden of proof, he would be mandated to accept the RTI application and provide the information sought. Malafide intention in rejecting information, destruction of information and even obstruction by public information officers would expose them to be penalized (see section 20 of the RTI Act,2005).
During the hearing of the appeal, the Information Commissioner rejected the ground taken by the Public Information Officer as it was not a valid exemption under the RTI Act, 2005. The officer then raised another frivolous objection. He stated that the information sought is voluminous and would require printing thousands of pages. The applicant stated that he was willing to bear the cost of printing. Therefore, the Information Commissioner rejected the second objection of the Public Information Officer as well and directed to provide the information sought.
In the last 15 years, the RTI Act, 2005 has not stayed as a law only. Instead, it has become a movement. Though with certain safeguards, it has empowered citizens to ask questions and seek information from public bodies. Not only does this check the opaque functioning of public bodies, but also makes them more transparent, fair, accessible and accountable to the public. Obviously, this has enhanced the ease of living of the common man.
Ansh is a practicing lawyer at the High Court of Delhi and can be contacted at email@example.comDisclaimer: The views or opinions expressed are solely of the author.