Two recent rulings relating to the Right to Information (RTI) Act have favoured a broad interpretation of the ambit of the law. The ruling that has invited the most comment is by a full bench of the Delhi High Court, which has upheld the view taken by a single judge of the court that the office of the Chief Justice of India is covered by the RTI Act. The other ruling, a few days earlier, was by the Chief Information Commissioner who declared that individual income tax records can be sought under the RTI law, on the ground that it is not an invasion of privacy and that it will help curb tax evasion. Both rulings deserve comment.
The Delhi High Court ruling is entirely correct in its view, and has transparent logic to back it. It points out that public declaration of assets is already prevalent in the lower judiciary and, therefore, it is logical that it apply also to the higher judiciary. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had taken the position that resolutions adopted unanimously by Supreme Court judges, favouring such transparency, did not have the force of law and compliance was, therefore, voluntary. This view has been shot down twice, so it is a matter of regret that the Supreme Court has decided to go in appeal. Since Supreme Court judges will hear such an appeal, this creates an extraordinary situation where the court will appear before itself. Surely, such a situation should have been avoided. It does not call for too much on behalf of the Chief Justice to acknowledge that the overwhelming weight of judicial as well as public opinion is in favour of greater judicial transparency. Indeed, the Justice PD Dinakaran case underlines the importance of such transparency.
The other ruling, on making personal income tax records available to any RTI applicant, is less easy to defend. The commissioner in question has argued that Parliament has not codified the right to privacy, and that privacy is a culturally defined issue. That may be the case, but it does not follow that making tax records public is not an invasion of privacy. What then of bank records? Is every citizen obliged to make all his personal financial dealings public, merely because some individual somewhere asks for it? Those seeking to hold public office are already obliged to make a variety of declarations; that may not be sufficient, and greater transparency might be called for. But when it comes to private citizens, the logic is faulty. If the issue is curbing tax evasion, what if no prima facie case has been made out concerning such evasion? Indeed, what if no public purpose is involved at all and the only objective is financial voyeurism? This provides a good opportunity to Parliament to correct the situation by codifying the right to privacy — especially since the project for issuing a unique identification number to all comers brings with it several privacy questions that also need to be addressed. The RTI Act must strike a balance between a commitment to transparent governance and to protection of a citizen’s right to privacy.