Year 2019 Puts RTI in the Firing Line from Courts, Lawmakers
Even though the Central government’s statement in the Lok Sabha at the close of the year 2018 came, loud and clear, that there is “no specific information that the Right to Information (RTI) Act is being misused” and that there are enough inbuilt clauses for denial of information within the RTI Act in case someone seeks information that should not be revealed, the year 2019 saw heavyweights in the judiciary and political arena badmouthing the Act and humiliating those who have been effectively using it and spreading its use.
 
Just to recall, as the year 2018 ended, Ram Kumar Sharma, the member of Parliament (MP) from Bihar asked a question in the Lok Sabha to the prime minister (PM), whether there is gross misuse of the RTI Act; and if so, the reaction of the government in this regard; whether the government has obtained proof of this misuse and; the steps taken by the government to check this misuse.
 
Dr Jitendra Singh, the minister of state in the ministry of personnel public grievances and pensions and minister of state in the PMO office, replied on 19 December 2018 in the Lok Sabha that “no specific information of gross misuse of the RTI Act 2005 has been brought to the notice of the government of India and that “the right of seeking information under the RTI Act 2005 is not unfettered. The safeguards against misuse are built inter-alia in Section 8 - exemption from disclosure of information, Section 9  - grounds for rejection to access in certain cases, Section 11 – third party information, Section 24 – Act not to apply to certain organisations etc.”
 
However, throughout 2019, several bigwigs insisted on destroying the image of the one and only citizen-friendly and citizen-empowering law of our country, the RTI Act. 
 
The most recent critic is Sharad Arvind Bobde, the Chief Justice of India at the Supreme Court.  While hearing an application in December 2019,  filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj and Commodore Lokesh Batra about the lack of transparency in the appointment process of information commissioners despite an order of the apex court  early this year, the Chief Justice stated that the RTI Act has created a sense of 'paralysis and fear' in the government. He also said that government officers are hesitating to take decisions because of this fear. He insisted that the law is being abused and told the activists’ lawyer Prashant Bhushan, that “don’t say as if there is no abuse and…the RTI Act had become a source of criminal intimidation by people with an axe to grind. Criminal intimidation is a nice word for ‘blackmail’.”
 
Commodore Batra says that, "I humbly plea to the Hon'ble Bench of SC to withdraw their remarks made during hearing held  on 16th December.2019, as my dignity and respect in the society has been badly  damaged as Transparency Campaigner. I am deeply hurt."
 
In August 2019, Ajoy Mehta, commissioner of BrihanMumbai Municipal Corp (BMC) was dragged to the Bombay High Court when he made uncharitable remarks about RTI activists. He termed RTI activists as 'professional complainants' and seeking a list of RTI activists who regularly filed applications regarding building violations so that they could be blacklisted. And what provoked him? Well, all because an RTI activist sought information from the BMC or Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) after the horrendous fire tragedy at Kamla Mills compound, which had claimed many innocent lives, who had gone out for dinner in the restaurants of its rooftop.
 
Former central information commissioner and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi, pained by the remarks of the CJI, feels that, “RTI activists have been persuading the government to put most information on the website as per the mandate of Section 4 of the RTI Act. If governments go completely paperless and digital, it would be easy to put most information on the website. At the very least most of the information and dashboards presently on computers should be available to citizens. This is not being done.”
 
“Another simple way to stop all blackmailing using RTI information would be to put all RTI applications and responses on the websites in a searchable manner. The department of personnel and training (DoPT) and many state governments have issued instructions for this. But this is not being implemented since this would expose the wrong and illegal actions. Citizens, media and courts should put pressure on the government to implement this properly. Citizens need to get accountability from the government and for this they need to get more information. This is ‘rule of the people, by the people, for the people.’ The citizens fulfill their role as the rulers of the nation by using RTI,” he added.
 
Not to forget that in the winter session of the Nagpur Assembly in 2018, members across party lines had unanimously supported the contention of Pratap Sarnaik, a Shiv Sena member from Thane that RTI users are blackmailers and action must be taken against them. He claimed that RTI activists have opened ‘corporate offices’ through such extortion. He charged that instead of solving peoples’ problems, helping government officials and exposing corrupt officers, RTI activists indulge in extortion in the name of transparency.
 
This led to much enthusiasm amongst members of all political parties present in the Assembly with several voicing their experiences of extortion by RTI activists. They said a high percentage of RTI users indulge in blackmail. 
 
Finally, in the Supreme Court, during the hearing of the Rafale deal case, India’s attorney general KK Venugopal had put the Official Secrets Act over and above the RTI Act when in the RTI Act, it is clearly stated that RTI overpowers the Official Secrets Act.
 
Nevertheless, here is wishing all citizens a pro-active 2020 in using the RTI Act, which is the most empowering tool that is available to them in our democracy which is presently facing a crisis of enormous proportions.
 
(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 of “The Mighty Fall”.) 
Comments
Col Vijay Yadav
2 years ago
I have yet to understand that who is criminally intimidated unless some truth is hidden. Govt or govt servant must have courage of conviction to write resoned notings or issue direction within framework of rules,My conviction tells me that ,we may exercise our vote once in five year , but RTI has given us right to seek answers from govt each day . My experience suggest , application or representation in office may not be attended for months ,but RTI to know the status of application electrify every rank and file of concerned office.
Praveen Godbole
2 years ago
No dount RTI Act is a momentous step in introduction of transparency in governance and must be welcomed by all. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that provisions of Act have been misused (abused) in stray cases. What Chief Justice emphasized was to ensure that it does not become a tool for 'criminal intimidation', that is to say that there should be suitable filters to ensure that information sought will not be misused/abused to harrass someone, particularly government servants, to settle score. I believe RTI activists should support this view to 'Filter out' undesirable RTI applications and come forward to suggest how should such filtering be carried out.
Praveen Sakhuja
2 years ago
Who is to be blamed GOI Or CJI? It is a million dollar question for entire population. In my opinion it is CJI to be blamed, who has forced himself in anti public activity killing the left over breaths in RTI. Bolo Mera Desh Mahan, kayuin ke Iss Desh ke rakshak buun gaye bakshak.
m.prabhu.shankar
2 years ago
RTI Act should be strengthened
P M Ravindran
2 years ago
Yes, there is one lot of persons who can and should be suspected of misusing RTI Act- the information commissioners. They are the only ones who can pretend not to see the failures of the public information officers in providing the information sought and be defaulters themselves in imposing the mandated penalty under the law. Since we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch we can only guess what price the defaulting PIO must be paying and how.

I can only plagiarize an English poet and say Balakrishnans and Bobdes may come and go but this nation and its people will go on for ever.
Dr V S Prasanna Rajan
2 years ago
It is very much disheartening to hear from the CJI himself that -"the RTI Act has created a sense of “paralysis and fear” in the government. He also said that government officers are hesitating to take decisions because of this fear. He insisted that the law is being abused and told the activists’ lawyer Prashant Bhushan, that “don’t say as if there is no abuse and…the RTI Act had become a source of criminal intimidation by people with an axe to grind. Criminal intimidation is a nice word for ‘blackmail’.”
However, such a remark by the CJI himself is contrary to the the law is well settled judicially by a majority opinion of a three judge bench of the Supreme court itself vide Martin Burn Ltd vs The Corporation Of Calcutta - 1966 AIR 529 - that - "A result flowing from a statutory provision is never an evil. A court has no power to ignore that provision to relieve what it considers a distress resulting from its operation. A statute must of course be given effect to whether a court likes the result ,or not."
PETER SALAZAR
2 years ago
The faith of the people in the judiciary at the highest level is crumbling and your article is the last hammer blow . It is indeed shameful and despicable that the revered institutions are succumbing to bigotry , partisanship and subjectivity in their observations. A sad day for democracy . On the other hand , my deepest respects to you, Vinita and Moneylife for the courage you display in lending your voice to truth and probity,- a sincere Thank you
Sandeep More
2 years ago
Only if there was complete transparency and sharing of all information with the citizens of the country, there would have been no demand for RTI in the first place. Alas, the guilty ones feel the necessity to strangle RTI under the guise of blackmailing and what not. It seems that only a revolution can change the system for the better.
RAMACHANDRAN THARKABHUSHANAM
2 years ago
I HAVE SOME EXPERIENCE IN HANDLING REFERENCES UNDER RTI. IT IS TRUE THAT THERE ARE CASES OF INTIMIDATION BY BOTH SEEKERS OF INFORMATION AND PROVIDERS OF INFORMATION. TO SAY THE ACT IA NOT SPECIFIC ON WHAT TO PROVIDE OR NOT TO PROVIDE.
Atul Arya
Replied to RAMACHANDRAN THARKABHUSHANAM comment 2 years ago
I agree what you said. I myself have dealt so many cases of RTI. It is one of the best way to paralyze Govt of Day. I have seen so many cases when tender notings are being asked and then vigilance cases filed based upon that basis. It is best way to intimidate Govt officials particularly honest ones. In Present form, RTI act is really bad as it does not seek information what is the purpose of information seeker in seeking that information???
Meenal Mamdani
Replied to Atul Arya comment 2 years ago
I assume that when you say tender it means a proposal or bid to execute a project. If that is so, then someone could file a vigilance case based on that information only if there is something nefarious in that proposal such as inflated costs, etc.
If that is the situation then by filing a RTI, the public has been saved from a crime being committed.
Your contention that honest officials are intimidated and thus paralyzed is similar to the excuse given by doctors that fear of lawsuits makes them ask for unnecessary tests. Being a physician I can tell you that is nonsense. If an honest person documents her/his reasoning for an action, she/he has nothing to fear from a litigation.
Meenal Mamdani
Replied to RAMACHANDRAN THARKABHUSHANAM comment 2 years ago
Your willingness to explain what is happening is very helpful.
I request you to describe a situation without giving any names.
We would all benefit from understanding the difficulties faced by PIOs as well RTI seekers.
P M Ravindran
Replied to Meenal Mamdani comment 2 years ago
Please read my blog at https://www.slideshare.net/raviforjustice/rti-subversion-by-ksic281219. Though I have listed only the major problems with the Kerala State Information Commission I am sure it will apply in its totality to any information commission in the country. As I have brought out in the article I had actually challenged the current Chief Information Commissioner, Vinson M Paul, through a press conference held at Palakkad in Jul 2018, to produce at least 4 of his decisions that would stand scrutiny of law in terms of correct procedure followed and correct decision arrived at. Of course the presstitutes did not cover it in their reports. So I had sent it to him directly at his official e mail id. Do I need to say there has been no response to that till date?
GLN Prasad
Replied to P M Ravindran comment 2 years ago
They will victimize you and the decisions may not be in favor. In the end the sincere applicants that demand proper justice, have to become victims. A sorry state of affairs with all commissions without exception.
GLN Prasad
2 years ago
The article should have been more informative if a survey on decisions of all state and central commissions reports on levying of penalty by SIC and CIC and public opinion on the functioning of such commissions from public and available data. There are cases even PIOs abused the RTI Act for reasons best known to them by providing incorrect/false information and misleading innocent citizens.
Meenal Mamdani
2 years ago
If the CJI himself chooses to make allegations without evidence what can we expect from less well educated Indians!! This statement smacks of the attitude "We know best, don't question us". This attitude may have passed muster in days gone by but is unlikely to be tolerated in the current society.
nadeem
2 years ago
Disempowering citizens... withering democracy...
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