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High Court mandates disclosure of interest in the information that a person seeks under RTI Act; Is it fair and just?

Well, we all know the courts don’t always practice what they preach when it comes to RTI but the recent decision by Delhi High court mandating disclosure of the information sought under RTI act makes us question if it is even fair or not. In a trial that took place this Tuesday, Delhi High Court opined that to established the bonafide of the RTI applicant, it is necessary to disclose the interest in the information sought while information is postulated under the Right To Information Act of 2005.

This mandate came in as a conclusion that it would be unjust to people connected to the ones whose information is sought if the reason is not disclosed. The bench headed by Justice Pratibha M Singh ruled in the aforementioned decision in the hearing of a petition challenging the decision of Central Information Commission denying to order the disclose the names and address of residence of fathers of the candidates who were appointed as a part of the Multi-Tasking staff team in the President’s secretariat.

The RTI applicant Har Kishan, that sought an application for information in respect of certain appointments made for the Multi-Tasking staff team at the Presidential Estate, Rashtrapati Bhawan, asked for names and residential addresses of selected appointees. However, the hearing arrived at the conclusion that the petition had ulterior motives behind it after it was uncovered during the procedural hearings that the RTI applicant’s daughter had also applied for the position in the President’s Multi-Task staff team, for which she didn’t get through.

Har Kishan, who himself has been an ad-hoc based worker on the Presidential estate back in 2102 till 2017, did not mention the fact of his daughter not getting appointed for the respective staff team anywhere in his petition to get the names and addresses under RTI. The awful quietness of this fact during the petition led Justice Pratibha M Singh to arrive at “The seeking of the above information, especially after the Petitioner’s daughter did not obtain employment, clearly points to some ulterior motives”. Thus, the plea made by the applicant under the Rights to Information act was found completely invasive and the enquiry would’ve been thus roving and fishing.

The court thus held that “The said information which is sought is clearly protected under section 8(1) (j) of the RTI Act which provides that any such information shall not be provided which constitutes personal information and is invasive of the privacy of individuals.“

For not disclosing important information about his daughter’s rejected application from the same committee, the court imposed a charge of Rs 25,000, including denial of the plea.

The high court’s decision for people to disclose their interest in the sought information sparked talks among many courts and people, especially because it is in direct contradiction with Section 6(2) of the RTI Act. Section 6(2) of The Right to Information Act states that any applicant applying for information under RTI is not required to give any reason for requesting the information or any personal information for that matter, except those necessary to contact him.  

Experts and people found this decision disappointing, to say the least. Former Central Information Commission head, Shailesh Gandhi after Delhi High court ruled that disclosure of reason is necessary to seek information under RTI, said that “ The court’s observation in the case is really unfortunate and in complete contrast with section 6(2) of RTI Act.” Similar views poured in from other benches as well, with concerns not only about this fundamental right but also about the 2 that comes with it.

Clause (2) of Section 6 of the RTI Act provides that an information applicant need not provide any reason for the information sought. It would not be open for an Information Officer to deny the disclosure of information on the ground that the information would lead to confusion, embarrassment or unnecessary debate in the public sphere.

Shailesh Gandhi, in his statement, further added that the Right to Information is every citizen’s fundamental right as per Article 19(1)(A) of the constitution, along with Right to freedom of Speech and Right to Publish, all being at par with each other. In respect to these 3, various experts used the term mutatis mutandis, which is a Latin phrase meaning- with things changed that should be changed. This terms points that whatever needs to be changed, is changed. The context of the term in respect to these 3 fundamental rights is that the change applied to one of the three applies to the other two itself as a change in effect.

If citizens are asked to disclose reasons or provide bonafide to access information, they would have to give reasons to speak and publish, as well. These are not only outside the spirit of fundamental rights but also falls beyond the definition of fundamentalism.

It was pointed out by the Transparency Minister Mr. Nayak that not only Supreme court but also other high courts have time-to-time ruled in the favour of not asking reasons to seek information under the RTI act on grounds to maintain the spirit of act and respect the curtail of fundamental rights. It was also uncovered that the Madras High Court ruled in requiring reason to seek information some time ago, which was quickly recanted as soon as media pointed out the contradiction. It is hoped that Delhi High Court will also rectify its error as soon as possible.

If PIOs are authorised to use their discretion to decide the bonafide of the applicant while disclosing information, the whole purpose of RTI is undermined. One thing of concern here is the fact that the act already provides provision against the issue of personal information that would hurt privacy under Section 8(1)(j), so as long as the information doesn’t hurt the privacy of concerned individuals, the reason for seeking the information shouldn’t be of relevance. Rather, the court’s ruling is against the definition of fundamental rights and keeping in view the condition of democracy in our country today, it wouldn’t be wise for the High court to do so.

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