PM’s pitch sharpens the RTI divide

By ZRG | Updated: Oct 17, 2012, 16:39 PM IST

Pankaj Sharma/Zee Research Group
Dr Manmohan Singh rarely speaks his mind and when he speaks, people listen, as claimed by US President Barack Obama. But this time the less-talkative prime minister is at the receiving end for speaking his mind on the Right to Information (RTI) Act from various quarters. At a recent Convention of Central Information Commissioners, Singh cautioned against frivolous and vexatious use of the RTI.

While the debate on the uses and abuses of the RTI is unfolding, a Zee Research Group (ZRG) insight shows that more RTI queries are being rejected under sections to protect individual privacy and third-party information. The research, if anything, points to the trend of the RTI blurring the lines between what constitutes personal and private thereby suggesting that the prime minister isn’t off the mark.

A ZRG study of the annual data filed by ministries and departments during 2011-12 reveals that 8.9 per cent of all RTI applications were rejected. Among 33190 rejected requests, maximum 8817 were rejected under Section 8 (1) j followed by 5150 under Section 8 (1) d and 3369 under Section 8 (1) e of the RTI Act.

Under the RTI Act, 2005 Section 8 (1) j states that, “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”.

Similarly, under the RTI Act, Section 8 (1) d exempts any information which would harm the competitive position of a third party. Section 8 (1) e of the Act exempts from disclosing the information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship.

During the same period a total of 3330 application were also rejected invoking Section 24 of the Act. As per the Act, Section 24 comprises intelligence and security agencies.

Figures might back the Prime Minister’s statement but experts don’t share Singh’s concerns.

RTI Activist Subhash Aggarwal believes rejection of RTI doesn’t bog down the applicants as CIC is available to give them justice. “As per the Act, any Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) can reject information but ultimately we have information commissions to get answers to our questions. I have witnessed many high profile cases where initially CPIO rejected the information but I got the information in the end after CIC intervened.”

Aggarwal further says that if the government is planning to review the RTI applications by CPIOs, then it will put more pressure on public resources and undercut the civil society efforts to impart greater transparency in governance.

Former chief information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi too detests any idea of tampering with the existing Act. He says, “PM statement signals that he wants to amend the Act to make it friendlier for the authorities. However, I don’t think any such step is required but if it is taken then people should protest.”

Gandhi has found nothing new in PM’s statement as this has also been said by the Supreme Court earlier. “The only new thing in PM statement was that Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) has to be out of the RTI Act, which is ridiculous,” he avers.

Authorities have often complained of some applicants using personal information to serve political purposes. But is that really the case?

Even if this is happening, Gandhi doesn’t think the government should worry. “As per the RTI Act, every citizen is entitled to question the government functionary and no one can deny them from their right. The government should not worry even if some people want to use RTI for their political agenda.”

Aggarwal endorses Gandhi’s point. “Some people try to misuse every law by setting their personal agenda into it. But this doesn’t mean we should dilute the Act. Any further amendment in the RTI Act will remove the soul from the body,” he explains.