Challenging an order of Rejection of Information under the Right to Information Act, 2005
A person filed a RTI application seeking information regarding a global tender for a grid connected solar park. The concerned public information officer sat on the RTI application for months. Much later, the public information officer rejected the application on the ground that the applicant and one of the companies that participated in the abovementioned tender were represented by the same lawyer. The applicant filed an appeal.
Transparency and accountability are essential tenets of a democracy. Access to information concerning the functioning of the public bodies is a step that promotes these principles. The Right to Information Act, 2005 (hereinafter the “the RTI Act”) was designed for “citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities”. This also potentially checks corruption.
The RTI Act, is comprehensive. It provides the right to access information held with public authorities and lists out exceptions under which information can be withheld. The Act, also provides a mechanism to appeal in case such information is denied. Any person may make a request in writing or in electronic form to seek information held by, or under control of a public authority. Spelling out the reason for seeking information is not a requirement under the RTI Act. Once such a request is received, the concerned public information officer is mandated to either furnish the information sought or reject the request within 30 days (see Section 7 of the RTI Act, 2005). Such an exercise is purely administrative as the concerned officer can provide information or reject the application strictly according to the provisions and exemptions specified under the RTI Act. The The Supreme Court of India, in the case of Union of India v. Namit Sharma – 2013 (10) SCC 309 held that “while deciding whether a citizen should or should not get a particular information which is held by or under the control of any public authority, the Information Commission does not decide a dispute between two or more parties concerning their legal rights other than their right to get information in possession of a public authority. This function obviously is not a judicial function, but an administrative function conferred by the Act on the Information Commission.”
There may be conflicting interests such as individual privacy, national secrets & other sensitive information, which have to be balanced with the right of access to information. This has been adequately dealt with by providing exemptions for disclosure of information. The only time the information sought can be refused is if it falls within the ambit of exemptions under section 8 & 9 of the RTI Act. In Bhagat Singh v Chief Information Commissioner & Ors. –Delhi High Court WP(C) No.3114/2007 , it has been held that “access to information under Section 3 of the Act, is the rule and exemptions under Section 8, the exception. Section 8 being a restriction on this fundamental right, must therefore be strictly construed.” Since exemptions are strictly construed, any other reason, other than the specified exemptions under the Act, would not be a valid ground for rejection of information.
What if the information sought has been rejected without any basis? An appellate mechanism for a first and second appeal has also been incorporated under Section 19 of the RTI Act. Rightly, in the appeal proceedings, the burden to prove that the information was justifiably denied rests on the concerned public information officer. Such officer may be able to discharge this burden only if the reason for rejecting the application is covered by the exemptions under section 8 & 9 of the RTI Act. An illustration of the exemptions includes; information expressly forbidden by order of a court or tribunal, information relating to trade secrets, information received in confidence from a foreign government, information, the disclosure of which would lead to a copy right infringement etc.
In the example cited above, the ground for rejecting the RTI application was frivolous and not covered by the exemptions listed under section 8 & 9 of the RTI Act. Further, the burden to prove that such rejection is covered by the exemptions under the RTI Act rests on the public information officer. If the public information officer cannot discharge the burden of proof, he would be mandated to accept the RTI application and provide the information that is sought. Malafide intention in rejecting information, destruction of information and even obstruction by public information officers would expose them to be penalized (see section 20 of the RTI Act,2005).
During the hearing of the appeal, the Information Commissioner, rejected the ground taken by the public information officer as it was not a valid exemption under the RTI Act, 2005. The officer then raised another objection. He stated that the information sought is voluminous and would require printing thousands of pages. The applicant stated that he was willing to bear the cost of printing. Therefore, the Information Commissioner rejected the second objection of the public information officer as well and directed that the information sought be provided to the applicant forthwith.
The RTI Act, 2005 has become a movement. Despite wide exemptions, citizens have been empowered to ask questions and seek information from public bodies. Not only does this check the unlimited power of public bodies, but also makes them more fair, accessible and accountable to the public.