Thursday, July 13, 2017

Expand, not limit RTI scope

Deccan Herald: Panaji: Thursday, July 13, 2017.
Hearing an appeal against a Bombay High Court order that declared the governor’s office a public authority and directed the Goa Raj Bhavan to make public the governor’s report to the President on the political situation in the state in July-August 2007 under the Right To Information (RTI) Act, a bench of the Supreme Court has posed an interesting question. Why should constitutional offices be kept out of the purview of the RTI? A bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Amitava Roy was of the view that even functioning of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) was not something that required secrecy. This is a welcome change from the earlier view of the apex court when it did not agree with the conclusion reached by the Central Information Commission and several high courts that the CJI’s office was under legal obligation to disclose all facts and correspondence demanded by anybody through an RTI application and fell under the RTI Act.
The Right To Information Act, passed in 2005, is one of the most powerful tools in the hands of the public. Not only does it help keep corruption in check, it also provides those within the civil society with a way to hold the various organs of the state accountable. The interest of transparency will certainly be better served if all constitutional functionaries, including the Chief Justice of India (CJI), were to come under the purview of Right to Information (RTI). Given how the court has struck down the National Judicial Appointments Commission Bill that would have replaced the current opaque collegium system of judicial appointments, bringing the CJI’s office under RTI would be the right way toward course correction.
This is overdue since the previous UPA government made subtle efforts to weaken the right to information movement and the present NDA government is following the same track. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly boasted about transparency in his government. However, a plea filed under RTI has revealed that since assuming office, the Modi government has reduced funds for promoting use of the transparency law. Recently, it has put in the public domain a set of new rules for RTI applications which could result in its dilution. Two of them pertain to withdrawal of an RTI application at any stage and the abatement of appeals in case of the death of the applicant. These could result in intimidation, activists fear. The Supreme Court and the high courts have been the fountainhead of the right to information movement. The Supreme Court bench’s latest observations fortify the case for expanding and not limiting the scope of the RTI legislation.