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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A new book on the RTI Act by former information commissioner ML Sharma provides an insider’s insight alongside legal knowhow on what was meant to be an empowering legislation

The book has arrived at a time when the RTI Act is rapidly losing its sheen because of bureaucratic apathy

Written by Shyamlal Yadav |
May 7, 2022 2:20:35 pm
right to information and jurisprudenceRight to Information and Jurisprudence; ML Sharma; Vitasta; 892 pages; Rs 1995

The RTI Act, implemented on October 12, 2005, is very simple to use. One can file an application on a plain paper, writing the details of the information required. With few exemptions under section 8(1), it is mandated that “the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person” and that “Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub-section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.”

Yet, over time, information officers have learnt how not to disclose information. And while the first appellate authorities — superior officials of those information officers — mostly endorse the stand taken by information officers, the second appellate authorities, Information Commissions, have often not been helpful to RTI users. This defeats the purpose of the simple-to-use RTI Act, and users need to be more equipped with the legal knowledge.

ML Sharma, who was denied the position of the directorship of the Central Bureau of Investigation during the UPA government’s tenure, was appointed an information commissioner (IC) at the Central Information Commission in 2008. He has come up with the book which contains relevant legal knowledge and explains the 156 landmark decisions of the CIC, 374 judgments of various high courts and 29 judgments of the Supreme Court. However, this book is not a mere compilation of those decisions. It is annotated with Sharma’s knowledgeable comments, which makes it all the more useful. Sharma has also narrated a history of struggle for the RTI Act in India and the advocacy for transparency law across the globe.

Over his nearly four-decade career in the IPS, Sharma, as he writes, became “deeply aware of how bureaucracy had succeeded in controlling and using information as a source of its power” but realised, as an IC, that the “litigants are handicapped in prosecuting their cases.” Sharma and many of his previous IC and CICs, prompted by such awareness and despite all obvious limitations, ordered disclosure of information that created much-required reforms in the government.

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In a chapter “A critique of the Law and Practice”, he starts with the quote of PM Narendra Modi that “our government is committed to providing a transparent and accountable administration” but it contradicts with Sharma’s observation when he writes, “Suo motto disclosures are haphazard, unindexed, inadequate, and half-hearted, thereby burdening the entire RTI regime.” This was supposed to be done by each public authority within 120 days of the implementation of the RTI Act. Lack of this disclosure is a reason for several unnecessary applications being filed. He attaches the order of the full bench of the CIC dated June 3, 2013, declaring political parties as public authorities but with the sad note that “It is disturbing that the decision has not been implemented by any political parties so far.”

More than the RTI users, this book should be read by the present commissioners at the CIC and by state government officials like those of UP, who disregard the deadline for replying to RTI queries — if they respond at all. It might be a revelation to them to learn about the revolution RTI had created before them. Though somewhat voluminous and costly, the book has arrived at an appropriate time when a revolutionary legislation is rapidly losing its sheen.

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