For a start, a public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act can reject information under any of the 10 sub-sections of Section 8; under Section 9, which protects private copyright; under Section 11, which exempts third-party information relating to commercial and trade secrets and; under Section 24, which relates to public authorities dealing with security and intelligence (though they are required to disclose information regarding corruption and human rights violation).
The CIC annual report of 2019-20, that has recently been uploaded on its website, is by itself a mundane narration with tables and graphs and it would be difficult for a layman to make sense of it. It’s thanks to the painstaking efforts of RTI activist and research scholar Venkatesh Nayak that some shocking facts are revealed.
For example, he points out that Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act was the most favoured and frequently invoked of the permissible exemptions across public authorities in India in 2019-20.
Section 8(1)(j), by the way, permits denial of access to personal information if disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or public interest or is likely to cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual concerned.
Observes Mr Nayak, “One in every three RTIs was rejected based on the Section (1) (j) exemption during this period. However, as compared with the frequency of use in 2018-19 (34.28%) there is a slight decrease (34.05%) in the use of this exemption in 2019-20. The use of this exemption was highest (37.06%) in 2011-12.’’
Time and again, experts have pointed out how there is rarely a reply from a central public information officer (CPIO) or public information officer (PIO), which would state that the personal information indeed has a larger public interest. So timid they are!
Rejections under Section 8 (1) (j)
So, which is the public authority which has rejected the maximum RTI applications under Section 8 (1) (j)?
Amongst all the central public authorities at the Centre, public authorities under the ministry of finance invoked Section 8(1)(j) the most number of times, that is a whopping 7,528 times which amounts to 41.99% of the total number of rejections of RTI applications in 2019-20.
The next dubious distinction goes to public authorities under the ministry of defence which invoked this provision in more than a third of rejections, that is in 755 RTI applications comprising 37.44% in rejections. The department of atomic energy rejected 168 RTI applications which comprise 50% odd of the requisitions received.
Mr Nayak observes this implies that one out of every two RTIs was rejected under Section 8 (1) (j) the department of atomic energy.
Besides, he says, the ministries and key public authorities which rejected more than 200 RTIs by invoking Section 8(1)(j) of the Act are: the ministry of electronics and information technology (93.54%), ministry of human resource development (65.68%), ministry of coal (49.41%), ministry of power (42.16%), ministry of communications (40.13%), ministry of defence (37.43%), Supreme Court of India (37.27%), ministry of petroleum and natural gas (36.82%), Delhi police (36.05%) and ministry of railways (23.8%).
Rejections under Section 24
The second most frequently invoked of permissible exemptions across public authorities is Section 24.
As of now, the Central government has notified 26 intelligence and security agencies such as the IB, National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), National Investigation Agency (NIA), Enforcement Directorate (ED), Assam Rifles, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) under Section 24(1) of the RTI Act.
These organisations are partially excluded from providing information but they are required to disclose information pertaining to allegations of corruption and of human rights violation within 45 days with the approval of the CIC.
However, observes Mr Nayak in his analysis, “One in every five RTIs (22.34%) was rejected under this provision in 2019-20- a significant increase from 20.29% reported in 2018-19.
"Taken together, Sections 8(1)(j) and 24 accounted for more than half (56.39%) of the RTIs rejected under permissible exemptions in 2019-20 (excluding rejections under "Others" category). This is the highest percentage of use of both exemptions since 2005. In 2018-19 this proportion was 54.57%. Strangely, the ministry of labour and employment rejected 150 RTIs (40% of the total number rejected RTI applications) under Section 24 of the Act although none of its public authority comes under Section 24 of the RTI Act. However, there is no discussion on this subject in the Annual Report.’’
Rejections under Other Sub-sections of Section 8
Similarly, other sub-sections of Section 8 have also been generously used to reject RTI requisitions under commercial confidence and intellectual property rights where disclosure is likely to harm the competitive position of a third party; under denial of disclosure of information in fiduciary relationship; those under sovereignty, defence, economic, strategic or foreign relations and; breach of privilege of Parliament and state legislatures.
“Most shockingly", says Mr Nayak, “Rejection of RTI applications happens under `Others’ category, although this cannot be the ground of rejection. The CIC includes this data in its annual report without questioning its validity.’’
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)