Early this week, right to information (RTI) applicant Ajay Marathe was denied information by the central information commission (CIC) that he had requested from the national commission of women (NCW) in the Ketaki Chitale case of Maharashtra, wherein a Facebook post mocking Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar had landed her in jail.
The information sought was:
• “As per tweets by the NCW they held meetings with Maharashtra police and Maharashtra state commission for women around 17 June 2022.
• I request all written correspondence including minutes of meetings between NCW and Maharashtra police and Maharashtra state commission for women. I am willing and ready to pay fees for the information please.”
The central public information officer (CPIO) replied, “That information sought cannot be made available to you, as it is exempted as per Section 8(1)(g) & (j) of RTI Act, 2005.”
The appellate authority too upheld the reply of CPIO. Feeling aggrieved and dissatisfied, Mr Marathe approached the commission with a second appeal.
At the second hearing held early this week, Mr Marathe requested the documents against the backdrop of multiple first information reports (FIRs) and complaints lodged against Ms Chitale on account of an alleged defamatory Facebook post posted by her against Mr Pawar. Being an RTI activist, he said he has sought the desired information from the CPIO.
However, Mr Marathe stated that he is aggrieved by the denial of information under the garb of Section 8(1)(j)/(g) of RTI Act ignoring the fact that such information should be made public in order to maintain probity and transparency in the system by keeping in view the aspect of suo-moto disclosure as per Section 4(1) of RTI Act. He further stated that information was sought in the larger public interest wherein the veil of section 8(1)(j) of the Act can, at best, be avoided.
The NCW’s CPIO argued that the information sought includes the complete records of correspondences and minutes of meetings pertaining to the third party’s case. This contains elements of personal information of the said third party and apparently endangers the life and safety of such a person. Therefore, the information has been denied to the appellant by invoking Section 8(1)(j) and 8(1)(g) of RTI Act.
The CPIO further explained that even otherwise, by considering the confidentiality and life-threatening aspect of the parties, the NCW can only divulge the complaint status, its registration number and subject matter of the complaint on its web portal barring any further details. He recalled the case of another RTI applicant, Aniket Aga wherein she was denied information last year for the confidentiality and sensitivity of information regarding alleged love jihad.
CIC Saroj Punhani upheld the CPIO’s stance and agreed that the information cannot be provided to RTI applicant Mr Marathe, as it “contains the elements of personal information of third party concerned which is squarely hit by Section 8(1)(j) of RTI Act.”
CIC referred to Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act which states that “Exemption from disclosure of information.— (1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen; (j) information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest; or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual -unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information;..”
Ms Punhani also referred to a judgment of the central public information officer, Supreme Court of India Vs. Subhash Chandra Agarwal wherein, while explaining the import of “personal information” envisaged under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, has been exemplified in the context of earlier ratios laid down by the same Court in the matter(s) of - Canara Bank Vs. C.S. Shyam in Civil Appeal No.22 of 2009; Girish Ramchandra Deshpande Vs. Central Information Commissioner & Ors., (2013) 1 SCC 212 and R K Jain Vs. Union of India & Anr., (2013) 14 SCC 794.
The following was thus held:
“59. Reading of the aforesaid judicial precedents, in our opinion, would indicate that personal records, including name, address, physical, mental and psychological status, marks obtained, grades and answer sheets, are all treated as personal information. Similarly, professional records, including qualification, performance, evaluation reports, ACRs, disciplinary proceedings, etc. are all personal information. Medical records, treatment, choice of medicine, list of hospitals and doctors visited, findings recorded, including that of the family members, information relating to assets, liabilities, income tax returns, details of investments, lending and borrowing, etc. are personal information. Such personal information is entitled to protection from unwarranted invasion of privacy and conditional access is available when stipulation of larger public interest is satisfied.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.)