In a move that has Right To Information activists up in arms, the administration of Governor-ruled Maharashtra has issued a directive to all departments and offices, asking them not to provide any information under the RTI Act if it “does not constitute any public interest”.
While government officials say the objective of the directive is to merely restrict those misusing RTI, activists describe it as a move to weaken the RTI law.
The directive, which came in the form of a Government Resolution (GR) on October 17, states that the central and state public information officers and appellate authorities are no longer bound to provide information that is found to be personal or pertaining to a private matter of an individual, where disclosing this would create unwarranted invasion of privacy of that individual.
It states that it was issued as per the advice of the state’s legal department and that it was based on a judgment of the Karnataka High Court. It states that “information that does not constitute any public interest and which would warrant overriding the provisions of Section8(1)(g)(j) of RTI Act, 2005 are not expected to be provided to the applicant under this Act, especially when it is intended to score the personal dispute with third party…”
Shailesh Gandhi, RTI activist and former central information commissioner, said the GR would “constrict” the citizens’ right to information. “The GR is partly based on the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Girish Ramchandra Deshpande case. They have interpreted the Girish Deshpande judgment wrong. The judgment does not give any legal reasoning how it has arrived at its decision… The judgment has also not taken into account two earlier Supreme Court judgments. Perhaps these were not presented to the court. On this basis I have filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court challenging treating of Girish Deshpande judgment as a precedent in laying down the law. If this GR of the Maharashtra government is followed it will illegally constrict RTI and its ability to curb corruption,” Gandhi said.
RTI activists said authorities in other states too have been denying information citing the \October 2012 Deshpande case judgment, which said performance of an employee in an organisation is personal information. \The judgment said, “The performance of an employee/officer in an organisation is primarily a matter between the employee and the employer and normally those aspects are governed by the service rules which fall under the expression ‘personal information’, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or public interest. On the other hand, the disclosure of which would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of that individual.”
But a Maharashtra government official defended the GR. “There are people who have been using RTI to blackmail others and there are some who seek information for settling personal scores. There was no way to curb this rapidly growing menace as PIOs were bound to provide information sought by an applicant under RTI,” the official said.
The official said the GR specifically cites previous court judgments, including that of the Deshpande case, that documents such as copies of memos issued to a government employee, show cause notices issued to him and orders of censure/punishment etc are qualified to be personal information as defined in the RTI Act.
Another RTI activist, Vihar Durve, said “I would like to question one thing, why have they issued a GR after the cabinet was dissolved. Currently the chief minister’s chair is vacant, they have not even invited suggestions and objections of public before issuing the GR. Since day one of the RTI Act’s implementation, the politician-bureaucrat nexus was against the Act. Later, huge scams came to light through the RTI. Now they have come up with his conspiracy to weaken RTI. Hence we do not accept this GR and we will challenge it.”
With inputs from Shyamlal Yadav, New Delhi