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M J Antony: Excess of sunlight

The Supreme Court warns against the overuse of RTI

M J Antony  |  New Delhi 

Ardent admirers of the Supreme Court will credit it with starting three revolutions in the past three decades. In the 1980s the public interest litigation (PIL) movement opened the doors of the court to every citizen, especially those who could not reach it due to poverty, illiteracy or backwardness.

Around the same time, the court sowed the seeds of citizens’ right to know in a few judgments, asserting that sunlight is the best disinfectant. This led to the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The third wave, the creation of an anti-corruption mechanism, also germinated in the court room, when the hawala cases, the 2G scam and other mega swindles led to momentous orders.

Like all revolutions, they have a tendency to overshoot themselves and lead to unintended results. PIL has grown into a wild bush and the courts are now trimming its branches and punishing interlopers and frivolous petitioners. Last week, the Supreme Court found that the right to information was also going too far. In a judgment, Central Board vs Aditya, the court stated that “this cherished right is intended to be a formidable tool in the hands of responsible citizens to fight corruption and to bring in transparency and accountability.”

However, it warned that indiscriminate and impractical demands or directions for disclosure of all and sundry information (unrelated to transparency and accountability in the functioning of public authorities and eradication of corruption) would be counter-productive as it will adversely affect the efficiency of the administration and result in the executive getting bogged down with the non-productive work of collecting and furnishing information. The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquillity and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.

“The nation does not want a scenario where 75 per cent of the staff of public authorities spends 75 per cent of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties. The threat of penalties under the RTI Act and the pressure of the authorities under the RTI Act should not lead to employees of public authorities prioritising ‘information furnishing’, at the cost of their normal and regular duties,” the court said

Last year, the court dismissed an appeal in which a litigant who lost his property suit in all courts below wanted information as to why and for what reasons the judges had come to their decision against him. “A judge is not bound to explain later on for what reasons he had come to such a conclusion,” the judgment in Khanapuram vs Admn Officer said.

Some high courts also receive petitions that seek irrelevant information or to settle scores against public officials. One case was decided by the Delhi High Court recently in which the judgment opened with a lament on the “maladroit manner in which a beneficial legislation and judge-made law” was used to mortify a deputy commissioner of the municipal corporation. In this case, Paardarshita Public Welfare Foundation vs Union of India, a non-government organisation sought information on the official’s alleged sexual disorders, DNA test, hospital records on alleged piles and sterilisation surgery. This was only half of its litany of demands.

The high court dismissed its application with costs, which will go to the benefit of the Blind Relief Association. The judgment stated that the petition was “beyond the perception of decency and in fact invasion of privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution. It is a reflection of extreme vengeance proclivity and is in bad taste and definitely would not come within the realm of the RTI Act.”

The Supreme Court judgment last week dealt with the right of examinees to access their evaluated answer-sheets. The court held that students have a right to see their answer sheets because it is “information”. It is not in the protected category listed in the Act. The Calcutta High Court had also taken the same view before in this appeal case.

However, the Jharkhand High Court has a different take on this. In its recent judgment, Jharkhand PSC vs State of Jharkhand, it ruled that it was dangerous to disclose evaluated answer-sheets. The information will reveal the names of the examiners, supervisors and others associated with the process of the examination. It will “endanger the life and physical safety of such persons.”

The Chhattisgarh High Court also upheld the decision of the information officer not to supply answer sheets of police constables participating in departmental promotion. The high court stated that the disclosure would be harmful to the competitive position of other candidates. The Patna High Court in another recent case stated that the names of members of the interview board to recruit police lab assistants could be disclosed, but their photographs or residential addresses should not be disclosed. The high court judges seem to know the ground situation in their territory better than the Supreme Court brethren, who have their heads apparently in the clouds.

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First Published: Wed, August 24 2011. 00:38 IST
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