From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Sec 8 RTI
Mains level : Threats to information disclosure
Supreme Court’s November 13 judgment on Right to Information (RTI) reduced the scope of ‘information’ and widened that of ‘restrictions’.
- The judgement expanded the power, length, and depth of exceptions under Section 8 of the Act.
- Thus it deviated from earlier decisions that said that ‘restrictions’ should be interpreted strictly and ‘information’ liberally.
- The verdict also restricted the understanding of the terms ‘held by’ and ‘under the control’ of a public authority.
- This makes several classes of information inaccessible to the public.
Blow to RTI
- The Chief Information Commissioner’s stature and autonomy were reduced by the recent parliamentary amendment to the Act.
- Supreme Court judgment amounts to direct instruction to the Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) on how not to give information on various counts.
Positives out of judgement
- It did not deny that the apex court is a public authority and answerable under the RTI Act.
- Judicial independence will only be strengthened with greater transparency.
Concerns with the judgement
- Paragraph 59 of the judgement could potentially be used by bureaucrats to shoot down many RTI applications during the first request.
- Instead of empowering citizens with greater access to information, the court has armed public servants to kill access requests.
From the past
- Supreme Court’s 2012 judgment in Girish Ramchandra Deshpande v. Central Information Commissioner was being used as a precedent by the Department of Personnel and Training and various CPIOs to deny information on records of public servants.
- The case was about Special Leave Petition on an RTI request related to the service record and assets of a serving bureaucrat.
- The Supreme Court held that such information could not be revealed unless there was a larger public interest demonstrated.
- In this case, the court held that the applicant was not able to show a bona fide public interest element and hence denied information to the person.
- The November 13 verdict could supersede the Girish Ramchandra Deshpande verdict.
Paragraph 59 of judgement
- Reading of the aforesaid judicial precedents… would indicate that personal records, including name, address, physical, mental and psychological status… are all treated as personal information.
- Similarly, professional records, including… evaluation reports, disciplinary proceedings, etc. are all personal information.
- Medical records… information relating to assets, liabilities, income tax returns… are personal information.
- Such personal information is entitled to protection from unwarranted invasion of privacy and conditional access is available when stipulation of larger public interest is satisfied.
- This list is indicative and not exhaustive.
- The last sentence of this paragraph could become another tool in the hands of public servants to deny access requests.
Contradicting Section 8
- Provisions for disclosure available under Sections 8(1)(j) and 8(2) of the RTI Act say that personal information can be disclosed if it has any relationship with public activity or interest.
- Even if such details have no relationship with the public interest, they can be given if the disclosure does not cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
- Even if the information causes unwarranted invasion of privacy, it could still be given if the larger public interest justifies the act.
- Even if there is no larger public interest, it could still be shared if the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in its protection.
- Declaring educational qualifications, performance report or disciplinary proceedings pertaining to public servants as being outside the ambit of disclosure was unwarranted.
- A specific educational degree which is a ‘qualification’ for a post, is also related to public activity.
- If the cost of medical treatment is reimbursed by the state, the medical record cannot become personal information.
Sec 8 RTI
Exemption from disclosure of information.