SC : RTI queries by anyone and everyone paralysing administration

The apex court said incessant queries under the RTI Act had spooked officials into becoming reluctant to put views on file, which had a paralysing effect on the administration, and sought suggestions on whether RTI pleas to public authorities be filed only by those having a connect with the issue.

“There is a pervasive fear of RTI. We are informed that Mantralaya in Mumbai is getting paralysed because of incessant RTI applications,” said a bench of CJI S A Bobde and Justices B R Gavai and Surya Kant. The bench gave an unexpected turn to a hearing on a simple application by advocate Prashant Bhushan seeking implementation of the SC’s February 15 judgment directing the Centre and state governments to expeditiously appoint information commissioners under the RTI Act.

Bhushan said restricting the RTI Act to relevant parties may harm the transparency law. For example, a person who lost out on a contract due to corruption will never seek information fearing blacklisting. “It has to be a public spirited person who on gathering information could seek details of the contract from authorities,” he said. The bench remained sceptical and said, “There are innumerable instances of blackmail through RTI.” Bhushan said if someone got information through an RTI application and used it for blackmail, it was “just a side effect” and asked how this could harm anyone.

He said only those officials who wanted to indulge in illegal acts would be afraid of RTI pleas and narrated the famous Indira Gandhi vs Raj Narain case where the SC had directed that details of the ‘blue book on prime minister’s security” be made public. The intention was that people were the real masters and should know what their representatives were doing, he added.

CJI Bobde said, “Anyone who has a grievance can always come to the court, we do not have a problem with it. Nowadays, some people describe themselves as RTI activists. Is that a profession? Or is it something under Section 506 (criminal intimidation, including blackmail). We are not telling this to you lightly. We are saying so from experience as judges.”

He further said, “We are not against RTI. We have upheld it and its application several times. We are asking you to suggest how to stop its abuse. We feel unbridled right to anyone and everyone to ask for any information is putting a strain on officials. On electoral matters, anyone can ask anything. But if it is a tender for a contract in specialised work, how can anyone not even remotely connected to the subject ask questions about it under RTI?”

Bhushan said all contracts involved expenditure of public money which should be put under public scrutiny through RTI queries. “If the RTI application is restricted only to those having nexus with the issue, then corruption in public offices will never be exposed. In a tender process, those who fail to bag contract will know about corruption but will never raise an RTI query fearing blacklisting by officials for future tenders,” he added.

When Bhushan said he had been associated with drafting of the RTI legislation right from the beginning and was well aware of its public interest benefits, the bench said, “That is why we are asking your views. When someone raises some RTI queries, we find you are behind it. So, we are seeking your suggestion in filtering persons who can file RTI applications.

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