Public Interest and Right to Information

By Kush Karla – Online RTI Writer, 17 December 2014

This article on Public Interest and Right to Information
includes:

  • Meaning of Public Interest,
  • Purpose and Scheme of the RTI Act,
  • Meaning of Public Authority, and
  • Meaning of Information.

Meaning of Public Interest:

The expression 'public interest' has to be understood in its true connotation so as to give complete meaning to the relevant provisions of the RTI Act, 2005. The expression 'public interest' must be viewed in its strict sense with all its exceptions so as to justify denial of a statutory exemption in terms of the Act. In its common parlance the expression 'public interest', like 'public purpose', is not capable of any precise definition.

It does not have a rigid meaning, is elastic and takes its colour from the statute in which it occurs, the concept varying with time and state of society and its needs. It also means the general welfare of the public that warrants recommendation and protection; something in which the public as a whole has a stake [Black's Law Dictionary (Eighth Edition)].

There may be cases where the disclosure hasnorelationship to any public activity or interest, or it may even cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of the individual. Thus, the public interest has to be construed while keeping in mind the balance factor between right to privacy and right to information with the purpose sought to be achieved and the purpose that would be served in the larger public interest, particularly when both these rights emerge from the constitutional values under the Constitution of India.

Purpose and Scheme of the RTI Act:

In terms of the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the RTI Act of 2002 it was stated that this law was enacted in order to make the government more transparent and accountable to the public. It was felt that in the present democratic framework, free flow of information for citizens and non-Government institutions suffer from several bottlenecks including the existing legal framework, lack of infrastructure at the grass root level, and an attitude of secrecy within theCivil Services as a result of the old framework of rules. The Act was to deal with all such aspects.

The purpose and object was to make the government more transparent and accountable to the public and to provide freedom to every citizen to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, consistent with public interest, in order to promote openness, transparency and accountability in administration and in relation to matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

The scheme of the Act contemplates for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority. It was aimed at providing free access to information with the object of making governance more transparent and accountable. Another right of a citizen protected under the Constitution is the right to privacy. This right is enshrined within the spirit of Article 21of the Constitution. Thus, the right to information has to be balanced with the right to privacy within the framework of law.

Where Section 3of the Act grants right to citizens to have access to information, there Section 4places an obligation upon the public authorities to maintain records and provide the prescribed information. Once an application seeking information is made, the same has to be dealt with, as per Sections 6and 7of the RTI Act, 2005.

The request for information is to be disposed of within the time postulated under the provisions of Section 7of the Act. Section 8is one of the most important provisions of the Act as it is an exception to the general rule of obligation to furnish information. It gives the category of cases, where the public authority is exempt from providing the information. To such exemptions there are inbuilt exceptions under some of the provisions, where despite exemption the Commission may call upon the authority to furnish the information in the larger public interest. This shows the wide scope of these provisions as intended by the framers of law. In such cases the Information Commission has to apply its mind whether it is a case of exemption within the provisions of the said section.

Right to information is a basic and celebrated fundamental/basic right but is not uncontrolled. It has its limitations. The right is subject to a dual check. Firstly, this right is subject to the restrictions inbuilt within the Act and secondly the constitutional limitations emerging from Article 21of the Constitution. Thus, wherever in response to an application for disclosure of information the public authority takes shelter under the provisions relating to exemption, non-applicability or infringement of Article 21of the Constitution the State Information Commission has to apply its mind and form an opinion objectively if the exemption claimed for was sustainable on facts of the case.

Meaning of Public Authority:

The expression 'public authority' has been given an exhaustive definition Under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005 as the Legislature has used the word 'means' which is an expression of wide connotation. Thus, 'public authority' is defined as any authority or body or institution of the Government, established or constituted by the Government, which falls in any of the stated categories Under Section 2(h) of the Act.

In terms of Section 2(h)(a), a body or an institution, which is established or constituted by or under the Constitution, would be a public authority. Public Service Commission is established under Article 315 of the Constitution of India and as such there cannot be any escape from the conclusion that the Commission shall be a public authority within the scope of this section.

Meaning of Information:

Section 2(f) of RTI Act, 2005 again is exhaustive in nature. The Legislature has given meaning to the expression 'information' and has stated that it shall mean any material in any form including papers, samples, data material held in electronic form, etc.. Right to information under Section 2(j) means, the 'right to information' accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority, and includes the right to inspection of work, documents, records, taking notes, extracts, taking certified sample of materials, obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies and video cassettes, etc.. The right sought to be exercised and information asked for should fall within the scope of 'information' and 'right to information' as defined under the RTI Act, 2005.

Thus, what has to be seen is whether the information sought in exercise of right to information, is one that is permissible within the framework of law, as prescribed under the Act. If the information called for falls in any of the categories specified Under Section 8 or relates to the organizations to which the Act itself does not apply in terms of Section 24 of the RTI Act, 2005 the public authority can take such stand before the commission and decline to furnish such information. Another aspect of exercise of this right is, that where the information asked for relates to third party information, the Commission is required to follow the procedure prescribed under Section 11 of the RTI Act, 2005.

Exemption from furnishing of Information:

Section 8(1)(e) of RTI Act, 2005 provides an exemption from furnishing of information if the information available to a person is in his fiduciary relationship unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information. In terms of Section 8(1)(g), the public authority is not obliged to furnish any such information the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement and security purposes.

If the concerned public authority holds the information in fiduciary relationship then the obligation to furnish information is obliterated. But, if the competent authority is still satisfied, that in the larger public interest, despite such objection, the information should be furnished and may so direct the public authority. The term 'fiduciary' refers to a person having a duty to act for the benefit of another, showing good faith and candor, where such other person reposes trust and special confidence in the person owing or discharging the duty. The term 'fiduciary relationship' is used to describe a situation or transaction where one person places complete confidence in another person in regard to his affairs, business or transactions.

Section 8(1)(e) of RTI Act, 2005, therefore carves out a protection in favour of a person who possesses information in his fiduciary relationship. This protection can be negated by the competent authority, where larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information in which case the authority is expected to record reasons for its satisfaction. Another very significant provision of the Act is 8(1)(j). In terms of this provision, information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which hasnorelationship to any public activity or interest or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual would fall within the exempted category, unless the authority concerned is satisfied that larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.

It is, therefore, to be understood clearly that it is a statutory exemption which must operate as a rule and only in exceptional cases would disclosure be permitted that too for reasons to be recorded demonstrating satisfaction to the test of larger public interest. It will not be in consonance with the spirit of these provisions, if in a mechanical manner, directions are passed by the appropriate authority to disclose information which may be protected in terms of the above provisions. All information which has come to the notice of or on record of a person holding fiduciary relationship with another and but for such capacity such information would not have been provided to that authority would normally need to be protected and would not be open to disclosure keeping the higher standards of integrity and confidentiality of such relationship. Such exemption would be available to such authority or department.

Kush Kalra

krrish.kush@gmail.com

Kush is a practicing lawyer at Delhi High Court. He graduated from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab, India in 2012 and has authored a total of 10 books on Law in a year which is accepted as a National Record i.e. [http://www.miraclesworldrecords.com/Gallery/Details/170]

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