The Wire: New Delhi: Monday, March 06, 2017.
The Central Information Commission continues to deny information pertaining to prime minister Narendra Modi. In its latest order, the chief information commissioner R.K. Mathur has upheld the decision of the chief public information officer of the ministry of external affairs and refused information about applications submitted by Modi for obtaining his first passport, its subsequent renewals and later, the documents for his diplomatic passport.
Rejecting the plea of the appellant, RTI activist G.M. Chauhan who is also the chairman of the RTI cell of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee the CIC ruled that while Chauhan had contended that “the information is in public interest”. As per Section 8(1)(j), release of personal information is permitted only “if larger public interest justifies it”.
In this regard, Mathur observed that while “the appellant has stated that Shri Modi is a public figure and that this information is already in public domain and hence the information should be released. However, this argument in no way establishes a larger public interest.” Therefore, he held that “the action/steps taken by the respondent in dealing with the RTI application are, therefore, found to be satisfactory.”
Incidentally, this is the third time in the recent past that the Central Information Commission has sought to protect the prime minister from divulging information.
In January this year, in an order that ran contrary to his predecessor Satyananda Mishra’s ruling that expenditure incurred on VVIP visits must be disclosed for larger public interest, CIC Mathur had ruled that the procedure involved in calculating the cost of foreign travel by the prime minister need not be disclosed due to “important security concerns.”
And prior to that, when central information commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu had, in a bold decision, directed Delhi University to disclose the records of Modi’s degree, the charge of listening to matters pertaining to the human resource development ministry was taken away from him. Subsequently, the order of Acharyulu which sought to uphold transparency in public life was challenged in the Delhi high court, which stayed it.
In the immediate case, Chauhan had on May 10, 2016, sought information regarding copies of applications submitted by Modi for obtaining his first passport, its subsequent renewal or fresh applications for obtaining a diplomatic passport. Not satisfied with the denial of information by the central public information officer (CPIO), and later the first appellate authority (FAA), Chauhan had filed a second appeal with the commission on September 2.
He had submitted that from the body of order passed by the CPIO or appellate order passed by FAA, nowhere had Modi treated the information requested for as “confidential”.
Chauhan also contended that it did not appear that the CPIO had given a notice to Modi regarding the request. He therefore asserted that since no notice has been issued, there was no question of treating it as a matter pertaining to submission by a third party.
The petitioner contended that it would also be wrong to say that the “information requested for is not in public interest and its disclosure does not outweigh in importance and it may harm or cause injury to the interest of Shri Narendra Modi.”
He said, “since the information requested for relates to the public life of the erstwhile chief minister of Gujarat and present prime minister of India, the disclosure is in public interest and it outweighs in importance any possible harm or injury to the interest of such third party.”
In support of his argument, the RTI activist had also cited some judgments. Chauhan also stated that the procedure of Section 11 of the RTI Act was not followed by the CPIO. He contended that even if the sought information is covered under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act and is a third party information, provisions of Section 11 have to be invoked. In response to this, the CPIO noted that the information sought by the appellant was a third party information under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, and therefore it had been denied in view of a Delhi high court judgment.
Clarifying on the provisions of personal information covered under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act and Section 11 which deals with a CPIO’s powers, Mathur said, “It is observed that the opening words of Section 11 are ‘CPIO…intends to disclose’, which indicate that the procedure of Section 11 has to be followed only if CPIO intends to disclose the third party information.”
Citing the Delhi high court’s decision of February 19, 2014 in Union of India v. R Jayachandran, which stated that,
“this court is of the view that the proper approach to be adopted in cases where personal information with regard to third parties is asked is first to determine whether information sought falls under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act and if the Court/Tribunal reaches the conclusion that aforesaid exemption is not attracted, then the third party procedure referred to in Section 11(1) of the RTI Act must be followed before releasing the information.”
As such, Mathur said in this case, “the sought for information is a third party information and covered under section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act. As brought out by respondent in para 9 the CPIO/FAA did not intend to part with the information. Hence, section 11 was not invoked.”