The Central Information Commission has been headless since August 22 and in the interim, the Right to Information is being eroded. A month ago, the Madras High Court invited widespread criticism by ruling that an RTI applicant must state reasons for seeking information, and that she must serve the public interest. Now, the office of the governor of Maharashtra has issued a government resolution empowering officers to ignore requests that do not serve any public interest. The Madras High Court had moved suo motu to review its own order, clarifying that it violated Section 6(2) of the RTI Act, which states that an application does not have to disclose reasons. However, the resolution in Maharashtra remains to be reversed.
These moves appear to stem from impatience about frivolous and motivated requests. As the Madras High Court had explained, the legislatures had not intended that information was to be handed out “like pamphlets to any person, unmindful of the object”. In Mumbai, the Raj Bhavan is particularly disinterested in providing personal information that may compromise privacy, especially in matters which may serve a private interest. However, the authorities cannot ascribe motive or lack of it — which is frivolity by another name — to applicants with any degree of certainty until the information released is put to use. Or not used, as the case may be. Besides, to declare the motive of an RTI query in advance is self-defeating, alerting the very authorities that it may be designed to catch out. The mechanism came with automatism built in precisely to negate governmental discretion.
The prevention of misuse should not be the first concern in the working of a law. Efficiency in use should routinely trump that argument, specially in laws that effect fundamental changes in human behaviour and public practices. A parallel may be drawn with the anti-dowry law, which is turning the tide on a mainstream but ugly custom. Its provisions are perceived to have been widely misused, but the Supreme Court has nevertheless upheld Section 498A of the IPC, which criminalises cruelty to women, while warning that it should not be used to settle scores. This year, Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the new chairperson of the National Commission of Women, admitted that the law is misused, but rejected this as a ground for dilution. The parallel with the RTI controversy is remarkable and by the same logic, the law that exposed the Adarsh scam, and so many others, must not be diluted.