23September2018

Andaman Chronicle

The Daily Diary of the Islands

DENIAL OF INFORMATION’ RISKS GOING VIRAL

The Right to Information, plugged as the aggrieved seeker’s license to information has inherent hurdles which offer the authority the perfect pretext to deprive information...and legally too.

 

Section 11(1) requires the public information officer to provide a notice to a person whose confidential records are requested to be made public. While Section 8 of the Act says that information can be denied, “if it relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship with any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of the individual.”

Earlier this year, in February Congress chief Sonia Gandhi declined to disclose details of her income tax returns under the RTI Act, citing personal freedom and security risk. In a reply to the I-T department, the Congress chief said there was no public interest involved in disclosing such information. The information was being sought by Chennai-based RTI activist V Gopalakrishnan who requested for I-T returns from the year 2000-2001 to 2010-2011.

The assistant commissioner of income tax, New Delhi also the chief public information officer (CPIO), wrote to the UPA chairperson on January 23 as per Section 11 of the RTI Act, 2005, seeking her response to the application.

Sonia replied saying that disclosure of such private information to third parties in guise of transparency in public life would amount to unwarranted invasion of the individual's privacy. She also added that information submitted to the I-T department by an individual was confidential and private in nature and cannot be disclosed as per Section 138 of the Income Tax Act, 1961.

And then, Right to Information activist Anil Galgali asked the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for information on the amount of fine imposed on Sachin Tendulkar for occupying his multi-storey bungalow on Perry Cross Road at Bandra without an Occupation Certificate (OC).

Galgali has submitted an RTI application to the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation in this regard as, according to law, one could not enter a flat or building for which an occupation certificate has not been procured.

However, BMC in a reply to the RTI said, “Tendulkar has objected to information pertaining to his home being revealed under the RTI to a third party.” “The civic authorities have violated the RTI?Act by refusing to provide me details of the fine imposed and collected by the BMC from Tendulkar," says Galgali. The BMC’s reason for denying information comes as a surprise as the “fine collected from a citizen” is perceived as public money and anyone could seek information on this under the RTI Act. It wasn’t the same as Sonia’s refusal.

This isn’t the first time that the cricketer has come under the limelight. It may be recalled that Sachin had earlier too made news for selling off a “gift” presented to him by Michael Shumacher to a Surat builder Jayesh Desai.

Refusing to go by the spirit of law

Incidentally, following an application filed in April, it was revealed that what should be available as suomoto declaration on implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act may not come under the definition of information, going by the civic development plan department.

When Kandivli resident S.K. Nangia filed an application seeking information relating to construction and allied activities based on newspaper reports on the high court pulling up the civic body for not controlling illegal constructions and accusing civic officers of connivance, of Nangia’s four questions in the application, the first two were rejected on the ground that they did not fall under the definition of information.

Nangia felt, “It is a willful denial of information. They should have made suomoto declaration of the information as per section 4 of the RTI Act.”

The section puts down public authorities should state the organisation, functions, powers and duties of officers’, process among others.

Need to review RTI Act: Prime Minister

To worsen things for RTI activists, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a review of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, exposing the government’s attitude towards the issue and stand vis-a-vis civil society.

In a two-day convention of the Central Information Commission, Singh said the transparency law should not adversely affect deliberative processes in the government and concurrently discourage honest, well-meaning public servants from voicing their views.

While urging the participating information commissioners to come up with concrete suggestions in the area of exemption clauses in the RTI Act, he said, “We must take a critical look at the exemption clauses in the Right to Information Act to determine whether they serve the larger good and whether a change is needed in them.” RTI has single-handedlly blown the cover off the 2G spectrum allocation scam and exposed irregularities in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games.

To prevent ‘transgressions’ into the government’s functioning, Corporate Affairs Minister VeerappaMoily and Law Minister Salman Khurshid have been backing the demand for amending the transparency law.

Quite expectedly, the PM’s suggestion came under attack from representatives of civil society, particularly members of the National Advisory Council, who saw it as an attempt to restrict access to information.

Keeping ‘opinions and advice’ out of the public view is perceived as patently illegal as Section 2 of the RTI Act clearly states that a citizen has a right to seek information contained in the file notings which are an important tool in the hands of the public to understand the decision-making process in the government.

The issue has been settled and decided and if the government, on the lines of the PM’s suggestions, were to attempt to backtrack on the settled decision, it would surely create an upsurge among the masses.

If at all anything’s required, it’s the need to strengthen the Right to Information and ensure greater transparency. A stronger RTI will protect the deliberative process of governance, as officers will find it easier to give honest opinion. The inherent risk of public scrutiny can ensure officers put down honest opinion in the file.

It works conveniently to a bunch of corrupt ministers and bureaucrats who’d wish nothing better than keeping communication and opinions under wraps and out of public preview. The BJP, swift to react to the PM’s take. “The prime minister's statement shows a desire to dilute the provisions of the RTI. The argument that the law is curtailing deliberative processes is spurious. How can transparency be seen as a hindrance to policy making," offered senior BJP leader ArunJaitley.

RTI activists have to be protected by law

With RTI activists getting attacked for their pathbreaking attempts to unearth issues and get to the bottom of situations, the need for a  legislation for protection of whistleblowers is felt now more than ever.

The government boasting   about being “committed to a comprehensive agenda of legal, executive and technology initiatives to curb corruption and improve governance,” is expected to empower the Right to Information Act to enable it to move in the right direction.

Nair’s RTI query refusal shames UPA

And then, when chairman and one of the blacklisted space scientists G Madhavan Nair was refused information on the reason for blacklisting him and three other space scientists in the scrapped 2005 Antrix-Devas deal under RTI by department of space, it shamed the UPA government. Madhavan Nair said it was shocking and he would move the appellate authority as he “got a blank paper,” and “Nothing contains in that. It’s a shame to the RTI Act.”

Random refusals have to stop as information needs to be swiftly disbursed and easily obtained, lest the RTI Act lose its bite.

(Readers keen on seeking help on drafting RTI applications may write in to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call Gajanan Khergamker on 022-22841593 for any assistance on RTI or to have their findings / issue featured on this page)

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