After the verdict in November 2017, where the Supreme Court (SC) ordered that the Office of the Chief Justice is a public authority under the Right to Information Act (RTI), the apex court has so far rejected 13,394 requests and appeals but has given reasons for the rejections only 9,293 times. This implies that it has rejected 4,101 such requests, which equal to 30.6% times, without giving any reason for rejection. The court cited the vague category of ‘Others’ as the reason for 6,410 of the rejections, which means 69% of the times. Clearly, the reason for rejection did not fall into the exemption clauses of the RTI Act.
It may be noted that Section 8 of the RTI Act specifies rejections pertaining to national interest, privacy and confidentiality.
The analysis, conducted by the Supreme Court Observer
, which chronicles and details important issues and cases pertaining to the court, on its website https://www.scobserver.in/
observes that although the ``(the) judgment cemented that citizens can file right to information (RTI) requests for records held by the Chief Justice’s office, it also emphasised that certain types of information are exempted from requests, such as personal information… but it also recognises that this cannot come at the cost of hampering the operation of these authorities.’’
So, is the public information officer (PIO) taking the benefit of the doubt because the jury had a different set of opinions in the SC order? The analysis implies so, when it states: “Whether this reason-giving exercise requires PIOs to explicitly reference specific provisions of the RTI Act is an open question. On the one hand, Justice DY Chandrachud, in his concurring opinion, said that PIOs should ‘record detailed reasons’, to prevent them from arbitrarily rejecting requests. On the other, the majority opinion by Justice Sanjiv Khanna and others does not dwell on how much or how little PIOs should record…Hence, the Supreme Court’s PIO enjoys the authority under the Act to reject RTI requests.’’
Like any other public authority under RTI, the Court too prepares quarterly reports. The study says that it is just a mechanical exercise and writes: “For the sake of transparency, the PIO produces quarterly reports to document how many RTI requests they are rejecting and on what grounds…The Court's November 2019 judgment was primarily occupied with the information exemptions under Sections 8(1)(e), 8(1)(j) and 11(1). These pertain to information held in a fiduciary capacity, personal information and third-party information.”
The ‘other’ provisions cited for rejecting information were unclear, say the findings. The report states: ``We surveyed all the reports published so far, beginning in the fiscal year 2006-07 and ending in the third quarter of the 2019-20 fiscal year, and found that the PIO had primarily cited ‘other’ provisions in rejecting requests. It cited ‘other’ a total of 6,410 times. In other words, 69% of all provisions cited fell in the ‘other’ category. Presumably, the ‘other’ category signifies other provisions in the Act itself. However, it is unclear which provisions the PIO may have referred to, as the primary exemptions in the Act are found in Sections 8, 9, 11 and 24. This leaves us somewhat in the dark about why requests are being rejected.’’
The graph shows that many of the key provisions that allow for exemptions under the Act have rarely or never been invoked. Sections 8(1)(a), (c), (d), (h), (i) and 11 have each been used fewer than 10 times since 2006. Further, Sections 8(1)(f), 9 and 24 have not been invoked a single time. Given the wide range of matters that the Supreme Court deals with, it is perhaps somewhat unexpected that some of these provisions, such as those pertaining to sovereignty and national security under Section 8(1)(a), have been so rarely invoked.
In a similar study done by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), its research scholar and programme co-coordinator, Venkatesh Nayak states that even in other public authorities, particularly the Prime Minister’s office (PMO), “according to the CIC, the highest proportion of RTI applications was rejected not under the permissible exemptions under the RTI Act such as Sections 8, 9, 11 or 24 but under the mysterious category of "others". At 43% rejections recorded under this category, more than four out of every ten RTI applications rejected were for reasons other than those permitted by the RTI Act. The Prime Minister's Office is one of the public authorities (PAs) that employed this device very frequently.’’
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author