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Questions about answers

RTI was designed to expand access to information,by training citizens and the government

Written by Wajahat Habibullah |
November 2, 2011 3:27:13 am

The following are exempt from disclosure under Section 8 of the Right to Information Act:

Information,disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India,the security,strategic,scientific or economic interests of the state,relation with foreign state or lead to incitement of an offence.

Information which has been expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of court.

Information,the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the state legislature.

Information including commercial confidence,trade secrets or intellectual property,the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party,unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.

Information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship,unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.

Information received in confidence from foreign governments.

Information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders.

Cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the council of ministers,secretaries and other officers.

Information which relates to personal information,the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest,or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual; infringes copyright,except of the state.

Where practicable,part of record can be released.

Intelligence and security agencies are exempt — except cases of corruption and human rights violation.

Third-party information to be released after giving notice to third party.

It needs,however,to be noted that under the proviso contained in Section 8(2),notwithstanding any of these exemptions or indeed the Official Secrets Act 1923,a public authority may still allow access to information,if public interest in disclosure is deemed to outweigh the harm to the protected interests. And most exempt information is,at any rate,to be released after 20 years,with some exceptions,although also provided that the information,which cannot be denied to Parliament or a state legislature shall not be denied to any person. Unfortunately,on this provision there has been no endeavour by government despite pronouncements of the Central Information Commission,thus making more complicated for itself government’s responsibility in keeping information secret.

What is noteworthy is that this law specifically seeks universal access,especially to the poor. It is,of course,open only to citizens of India,as per Section 3,but the fee is also required to be at a reasonable level,although the quantum is specified only by rule,and there is no fee for BPL persons. Assistant public information officers are required at sub-district levels to facilitate the filing of applications and appeals. Hence,heads of post offices have been given this authority by the Central government.

There is no need to specify a reason for seeking information or to provide any other personal details. There is a provision that the PIO reduce oral requests into writing and for the PIO to provide all required assistance,including to disabled persons. Information is to be provided in local languages. There is provision for damages.

This placed a host of responsibilities on public authorities,who were required to appoint PIOs/assistant PIOs within 100 days of the RTI enactment and to begin maintaining,cataloguing,and indexing,computerising and networking records in accordance with Section 4(1) (a).

If this has not happened to the extent required,the government,which appoints CPIOs from officers at a relatively junior level,has only itself to blame. These authorities were to publish,within 120 days of enactment,a whole set of information,and update it every year.

This was to include publishing suo moto all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect the public,and also providing reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to all affected persons. Authorities were made primarily responsible for raising awareness,educating and training officials and the public. Every department was expected to develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public,particularly the disadvantaged,to exercise the right to information. Not having done so,the government can hardly blame the public for misuse.

Government was thus to encourage public authorities to participate in programmes,promote timely and effective dissemination of accurate information,train PIOs and produce relevant training materials. To achieve this,government has developed a scheme for e-governance. It is agreed that for the success of this initiative,RTI is essential. Here there has been progress,but only at the level of the Centre.

Key to the effective functioning of the Act is the Gram Panchayat,which can be the repository for scheme information,citizen surveys,fiscal information,etc. But this will happen only with the devolution of functions,funds and functionaries.

This body can then become the service provider for over-the-counter services,certificates,taxation,billing,licences,ration cards,and a host of such services at the grassroots,working to keep the citizenry informed as a group (Gram Sabhas) and as individuals,whose concerns and questions can also be appropriately addressed by reference to the relevant authority. This would ensure better feedback and accountability.

In reviewing the enforcement of the RTI Act,it would be wise to bear in mind the remarks of Justice Mathew on behalf of the bench in State of UP v Raj Narain (1975),oft-quoted in judicial circles while debating the law:

“In a government of responsibility like ours,where all agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct,there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act,everything that is done in a public way,by their public functionaries… to cover with a veil of secrecy the common routine business,is not in the interest of the public.”

Concluded

The writer was chief information commissioner to the government of India

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