Mumbai Mirror: Mumbai: Sunday, 26 October 2014.
Second punch: Govt issues circular telling officials to hold back any files that they think are not in public interest.
Outraged Right to Information (RTI) activists have railed at two government notifications, issued in the last two weeks, which they say seek to dilute the efficacy of the RTI Act. Some advocates of transparency and the regime of accountability have termed the orders "illegal" and have written letters of protest to the Governor of Maharashtra and the state Information commissioner.
One of the circulars, issued in the last week of September, exempts the state Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) from the purview of RTI queries while the other, issued on October 17, constrains all government departments from releasing any information deemed "not in public interest".
The first notification was issued by the General Administration Department of the Maharashtra government a few days before the model code of conduct came into force, prior to the state assembly elections. This order includes the ACB under Section 24 (4) of the RTI Act, which states that nothing contained in the statute shall apply to intelligence and security organisations. Activists said the logic that animates this decision eludes them, considering the bureau investigates cases of graft and is not tasked with matters concerning intelligence or security. "In my view, the order exempting ACB from RTI is illegal," said former Information Commissioner of the Central Information Commissioner's office and prominent RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi. "Section 24 (4) of the RTI Act deals with intelligence and security organisations. But there is no question of putting ACB into that category. I have challenged the order and written to the Maharashtra information commissioner."
RTI activist Anil Galgali said considering the number of corruption inquiries pending against members of the Nationalist Congress Party, which formed one half of the coalition that ruled the state till the elections were held earlier this month, the order concerning the ACB would render any independent inquiry impotent. "This order against the ACB will hide it all," he said.
"The proposal to remove the ACB from the ambit of RTI came from the ACB and was ratified by the home department - former home minister R R Patil and former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan," said additional chief secretary P S Meena, of the General Administration Department. "We also consulted the law and judiciary department, which gave an opinion that the ACB can be removed from the ambit of RTI." According to him, one of the principal reasons for this is that those accused by the ACB of graft could misuse the act to extract information about proceedings against them and jeopardise the investigation. "After consultations, we issued the order last month to put the ACB out of RTI ambit.'' Meena said.
The second proclamation issued by the administration of the Governor-ruled state has directed all departments to withhold any information that does not constitute "public interest". The order cites a Supreme Court ruling dated November 3, 2012 stating, "The details called for by the petitioner i.e. copies of all memos issued to the third respondent, show-cause notices and orders of censure/punishment etc. are qualified to be personal information as defined in clause (J) of section 8(1) of RTI Act. The performance of an employee or officer in an organisation is primarily a matter between the employee and employer and normally those aspects are governed by the service rules which fall under the expression 'personal information', the disclosure of which would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of that individual." The order also refers to a verdict by the Karnataka High Court, delivered on August 31, 2012, which states that if information sought by an applicant falls under the "personal" category, officers shall not entertain RTI applications regarding such data. "The circular that quotes the SC and Karnataka HC on personal information is also not correct," Gandhi said. "The order of the SC is specific to a case and does not constitute precedent; it can be followed as law of the land provided it gives reasoning in law and establishes a legal principle. But this particular SC judgement does not do that. In fact I have filed a petition in the Bombay High court challenging this aspect," Gandhi said.
His fellow activist, Bhaskar Prabhu of Mahiti Adhikar Manch, agreed. "All of us have been protesting against it. In fact, we have not just written letters to the state information commissioner, but also to the Governor of Maharashtra," he said.