RTI: Possible tool to rein in the government.


India is an ever-expanding democracy with new freedoms and rights emanating providing a more inflated arena of opportunity to its citizens to breathe in. In this unending run, an informed and participative citizenry is but a ‘sine qua non’  for a perfect democracy.

In the famous case, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties v. UOI  hon’ble court held that true democracy cannot exist unless the citizens have a right to participate in the policy affairs which automatically entails citizenry to be well informed on all sides.

The RTI does not just lay down a mechanism for citizens to obtain, from public authorities, the information needed within a stipulated time frame and a set-up to deal with their complaints in case the right is compromised but also an all-time available record of needful information so that citizens have the least need to resort to the facility under the act.

 Since absolutism paves the way to corruption, the act provides exemptions from disclosure to protect integrity and security of India, prevent the breach of parliamentary privilege or regarding deliberations of ministers etc.

On the ground, the RTI has not just been a mere tool to keep citizens informed but a way for them to let the benefits and rights meant for them to become palpable be it the availability of teachers in schools or the fair implementation of PDS. The covering of Courts under the act, regarding the matter of decisions of the collegium, shall expand the ambit of people’s eye. The states are pushing a bit of their part, to let the benefits accumulate, under the framework of the Act.

Still, every new right while expanding boundaries for one, naturally tightens the other’s space and thus creates a tussle with some other category of rights.

The Right to Privacy which is already threatened in this technology-driven world, is considered as one of the biggest victims. The RTI Act exempts personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy. But there are two holes to pipe away even this information to the public domain: larger public interest and that the information which cannot be denied to the Legislature shall not be denied to the public.

Hence, the anxiety of losing privacy is not fanciful when loads of our information is lying with government departments. The word ‘public interest’ is not explicitly defined providing a reasonable scope of stretching out its fringes according to the authorities’ whims.

The depth up to which the information of people, lying with public authorities, is susceptible to be disclosed is still an ambiguity so that even the most intimate personal details are liable to become public. Political Parties, being the most prominent public figures, are more liable to this untethered disclosure of information like criminal records, assets and liabilities etc which although helps the public make informed decisions, violates to some extent the former’s personal space.  

In case of disclosure of third party information, although the submission of the 3rd party is taken but the final decision of disclosure depends upon the ‘public interest’ consideration.

Another issue is how the act piles up the whole burden upon the barely trained Public Information Officers, appointed by each public authority, to prove why the request was rejected and the penalty to needs to be borne by him. Here, much homework still needs to be done with respect to the training of officials.

The RTI and the Right to Privacy, in many cases, have proved to be complimentary. While former enhances information availability to citizens to enable them to enjoy other rights as well as entitlements and to unveil corruption. The latter helps in exercising their control upon their own information lying with others. Both rights are fundamental and can coexist requiring a clear entrenchment of the line between what ‘needs to be public’ and what ‘need not’.

Judiciary is continuing to play its part but now the government should pick up its pencil and lay down a clear and detailed demarcation within the plethora of information, so as to reduce the case by case subjectivity of decisions, thereby assuaging the burden upon the Judiciary. This would in turn expedite the judicial process.

As Dr Manmohan Singh opined, “There is a fine balance to be maintained between the right to information and privacy. But where to draw the line is a complicated question.” Remember, true Democracy doesn’t come just by making ‘Acts’ but by making people ‘capable to act’.

Source – Legal Acharya

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