The right to information is being steadily constricted by gross subversion of the law and Constitution. RTI Act mandates in Section 7 (1) that information can only be refused for exemptions specified in Section 8 and 9. Personal information may be exempted under Section 8 (1)(j) when “disclosure … has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information: Provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”
A simple reading of the words shows that information under this clause can be denied if it is personal information whose nature has apparently no relationship to any public activity or interest; or whose disclosure would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual. If the information is personal information, it must be seen whether the information came to the public authority as a consequence of a public activity. Generally, most of the information in public records arises from a public activity. Applications for a government job, ration card, passport, caste certificates are some examples of public activity.
However, there may be some personal information which may be with public authorities public activity, eg medical records, or transactions with a public sector bank. Similarly, a public authority may come into possession of some information during a raid or seizure which may have no relationship to any public activity. These would be exempt.
Unfortunately, it has become commonplace for adjudicators to truncate this clause and deny all information which can be connected with any person. Across the country information about MLA funds expenditure, officer’s leave, caste certificates, file notings, educational degrees, beneficiaries of subsidies and much more is being denied. Many PIOs are denying information which may have the name of a person claiming it is personal information and hence exempt.
Even if the information has arisen by a public activity, it could still be exempt if disclosing it would be an unwarranted invasion on the privacy of an individual. The denial of information from public records on grounds of privacy has to be in line with Article 19 (2) of the Constitution which allows placing restrictions on Article 19 (1) (a) in the interest of ‘decency or morality’. If, however, it is felt that the information is not the result of any public activity, or disclosing it would be an unwarranted violation of ‘decency or morality’, before denying information it must be subjected to the acid test of the proviso: “provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”
Public servants have been used to answering questions raised in Parliament and legislatures. Hence, when they have a doubt, the law requires them to consider if they would give this information to the elected representatives. They must first come to the conclusion that they would not provide the information to MPs and MLAs, and record it when denying information to citizens.
Another perspective is that information is to be denied to citizens based on the presumption that disclosure would cause unjustified harm to some interest of an individual which should be protected. If, however, the information can be given to legislature it means the likely harm is not very high since what is given to legislature will be in public domain. Hence, it is necessary that when information is denied based on the provision of Section 8 (1) (j), the person denying the information must give his assessment that such information would be denied to Parliament or State legislature if sought in the decision.
This exemption has been illegally made so wide as to deny most information. This is an illegal and unconstitutional emasculation of RTI by a majority of officials, commissioners and courts. An important fundamental right is being curtailed and the right to publish could be next.
The writer is former Central Information Commissioner