13th January – Right to Information : Its use and misuse

Chief Justice of India SA Bobde cautioned last month against the abuse of the Right to Information Act, setting off a chain of indignant reactions from a variety of activists.

What did he say?

“There is paralysis and fear about this Act”, he stated, adding that “people are not taking decisions” because they apprehend the slash of the RTI sword on their necks.

Criticism –

The Chief Justice of India’s observations opens a window of opportunity for the Union government to prepare appropriate guidelines that would, in the CJI’s words, act as a “filter”. There have been several criticisms against the observations –

  1. The applicant, Anjali Bharadwaj has quoted Union Minister for Home Affairs Amit Shah, who, according to her, had said at an event that there had been no misuse of the legislation since it was passed in 2005. Another activist, Venkatesh Nayak, was quoted in a section of the media as saying that while the court’s apprehensions may have been genuine theoretically, there was no data to back the fear.
  2. The second ground for criticism by activists is that the court went into an area that was simply not part of the prayer before it. It was argued that they were only proceeding on a premise the apex court had laid down in previous cases where it had held that people in a democracy had a right to know what their government and its representatives were doing.
  3. The third reason why the activists are upset is that they believe the CJI’s observations are not in tandem with the Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, more so because the RTI is covered under this Article. They argue that the right to publish and the right to speech are guaranteed under this provision.

Analysing the criticism –

It is not the first time that a court has red-flagged the issue of abuse of right to information.

  1. In 2011, the apex court, while hearing a case relating to a bunch of people against the Central Board of Secondary Education, was critical of a scenario where 75 per cent of the public staff was busy “spending 75 per cent of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties”.
  2. The second point of criticism is that the apex court, in the case at hand, had gone beyond the relief that had been demanded. If this narrow approach is to be the method, then many path breaking verdicts would not have come. Take, for instance, the Kesavananda Bharati versus State of Kerala (1973). Here, the petitioner, His Holiness Kesavanada Bharati Sripadagalvaru, head of the Edneer mutt, had petitioned the Supreme Court against the Kerala land reforms which had affected the properties of his religious institution. It was a straightforward matter of right to property, but the court proceeded to also lay down what came to be called the ‘Basic Structure Doctrine’ of the Constitution of India.
  3. The third objection to the latest observation of the apex court, which has to do with Article 19(1) (a), had been addressed by the CJI in his remark, that petitioners did not have “unrivalled rights” under the RTI. Even the said Article does not give unbridled freedom. While it is true that Article 19 (1) (a) says that all citizens shall have the right to “freedom of speech and expression”, Clause 2 of the same Article holds that the state can impose “reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred… in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India”.

Conclusion –

Those that are at daggers drawn with the Supreme Court today must remember that it was the court’s initiative that had led to the RTI legislation fifteen years ago. As far back as in 1975 (State of Uttar Pradesh versus Raj Narain) and in 2002 (Union of India versus Association for Democratic Rights), the court had unambiguously batted for the right to information to the people from public institutions and individuals. Sustained pressure by the courts and transparency activists resulted in the RTI legislation, both at the Central and the State levels.

SourceVIF India

QUESTIONThe Right to Information Act has been misused time and again. Discuss the observation in light of the recent comments made by the Chief Justice of India.

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