The Bombay High Court in its order, in the former journalist and activist Saket Gokhale's petition, has reprimanded the ministry of information & broadcasting (MIB) for putting up in the public domain his RTI application copy which contains his address and contact details. This has come as a relief for the RTI activists' and users' fraternity.
In fact, the department of personnel and training (DoPT) has earlier sent circulars to all public authorities under the RTI Act to protect the personal details of citizens who seek information, but this has hardly been adhered to.
Most of the public authorities of the central and state governments, which come under the ambit of the RTI Act are not abiding by the mandatory Section 4 disclosures of uploading information, suo motu.
This compels users and activists to file RTI application under Section 6 of the Act. It is here that the RTI applicant is required to write down his personal details like contact number and address. This sometimes makes him vulnerable to threats, if his application is uploaded on the website or if someone else seeks a copy of the RTI application under the RTI Act. In the case of Mr Gokhale, one of his several RTI applications to the MIB was subsequently uploaded on its website. He received threat calls and even protests in front of his house as he had sought details of the congregation in Ayodhya despite the pandemic.
The Bombay High Court on 20 November 2020 came down heavily on the secretary of MIB and ordered that: "The Division Bench considered section 6(2) of the Act of 2005 and held that it would be the duty of the authority to hide such details and particularly from their website so that people at large would not know of the details.”
Placing the responsibility on the secretary, MIB, government of India, the HC asked him ``to ensure that a suitable enquiry is held in the issues highlighted in this judgment regarding the uploading of the personal details."
The HC has asked him to conduct an enquiry and take ``suitable disciplinary action" subsequently. The deadline is by first week of February 2021.
The judge pointed out that the issue of placing personal information in the public domain pertains not only to one individual but it is a larger public interest issue.
The HC order observed that: ``the issue also travels beyond the individual breach of the privacy of the applicant and potential likelihood of a risk. It is the impact on future applicants. Informed citizenry and transparency of information are vital for the functioning of democracy. Noticing that personal details of other applicants are put up in the public domain, some of those who want to seek information for the larger good may be deterred for the fear of being targeted. This could defeat the object of the Act. If such large-scale breaches in the field of Right to Information are not taken seriously, the right itself will be trivialized. Suitable action must be taken, and also seen to be taken, to underscore the importance of the Act of 2005."
The HC also observed that earlier: ``On 20 November 2013, the (Kolkata) High Court passed the order accordingly, and the secretary, ministry of personnel was directed to circulate the copy of the order to all concerned so the authority can take measures to hide personal details of the activists to avoid any harassment by the persons having vested interests."
In this 2013 judgment of Avishek vs. Union of India, the Kolkata High Court had stated thus: "The petitioner submits, the authority may not insist upon the detailed address particularly when the applicant would provide a particular post box number that would automatically conceal their identity to the public at large."
"In case, the authority would find any difficulty with the post box number, they may insist upon personal details. However, in such case, it would be the solemn duty of the authority to hide such information and particularly from their website so that people at large would not know of the details".
There are several interpretations of Saket Gokhale's petition's judgment by the Bombay High Court on 20th November, by various RTI activists and legal experts.
As per RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, there are many safeguards in the RTI Act itself which protect the citizen's personal details from being exposed in the public domain. He says, “The preamble of the RTI Act says that the citizen is the owner of the information he seeks and so he or she has the right to get it voluntarily from the public authorities. In fact, they should not come to the stage of filing the RTI. Secondly, Section 5 (2) clearly states that the public information officer (PIO) should go out of his way to help the citizen to file RTI if the latter is unable to do so. In that case, he should be aware that minimum personal details should be provided of the applicant. Thirdly, Section 8 (1) (g) clearly mentions that no information should be furnished, 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 or security purposes.”
Mahesh Zagade, former principal secretary of Maharashtra says, “We should understand the present ecosystem where many people are facing threats. We have a handful of people who are taking courage to question the authorities and if their identity is exposed, it will deter them from using the transparency law. This will then weaken the RTI Act. Also, anywhere in the world, the government works in a secluded and opaque manner, so citizens have the right to have access to what it is doing with the public money. Finally, the crux of the matter is that the RTI Act is to seek information from the government and not give your own information.”
Adv Sunil Ahya says, “As per the provisions of section 6(2), bare minimum personal information about an RTI applicant is to be sought by a public authority only for the purpose of contacting him. It is well settled in law that any 'TEXT' in law, for its appropriate interpretation, is to be read in its CONTEXT along with all the other provisions in law including authoritative precedents. Therefore, you may read section 6(2) along with section 8(1)(g) and further read it with section 10, apart from the Calcutta High Court and Bombay High Court decisions."
Former CIC Shailesh Gandhi says that much hue and cry is being made out of the HC order as, if an RTI applicant does not want to disclose his address, he can use a post box number as decided in the Kolkata High Court order. He further adds: “There is an order delivered by the Bombay High Court, It can have a far reaching negative impact on RTI. It appears the court has been misled into delivering this order. No such order had been passed in 2013 by the Kolkata High Court to hide personal details. Personal details are available on many websites and this is the mandate of Section 4 of the RTI Act to display most information proactively. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) websites and the Jansoochana portals of many states give the names and addresses of ration card holders, pensioners and many other persons. The voter's lists carry the names and addresses of all voters. It would be a near-impossible task for the government departments to remove the names and addresses from all applicants and responses. There is no discussion in either the 2013 or the 2020 judgment as to how the addresses, and phone numbers become exempt information.”
(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”.)