The Latest Supreme Court Order Damages Power of the RTI Act. Here Is How
Earlier this month, the three-judge bench led by Justice R Bhanumathi upheld that the Right to Information (RTI) Act cannot override relevant rules under the Gujarat High Court Rules. Information or certified copies of orders held by a high court (HC) can be given to a third party only as per rules framed by the HC and not under RTI, the Supreme Court (SC) says.
 
This, in other words, mean that a citizen cannot file RTI seeking to obtain pleadings in the HC that have own rules. 
 
The RTI Act says that all information should be in public domain and as per Section 2(2) of the Act, the applicant is not required to provide any reason for requesting such information. And that such a stance is not ‘inconsistent’ with the RTI Act, the apex court ruled.
 
When Moneylife contacted former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, he opined that, “What is obviously ‘inconsistent’ is that the High Court rules compel the information seeker to give reasons, which the RTI Act does not.
 
"This judgment is a direct assault on citizen’s fundamental right as what the Supreme Court says becomes law. Now, if every public authority were to derive their own rules and insist that information would be given strictly by those in-house rules only, then what happens to the RTI Act? We can write off the RTI Act in the next 10 years for we have been given a system of information under this law but now public authority gets the liberty to nullify it.”
 
In April 2010, an RTI applicant sought information on two civil application cases from the Gujarat High Court. The public information officer (PIO) of the HC replied that he should make an application through his advocate addressed to the deputy registrar and attach Rs3 court fee stamp. The PIO quoted Rule 151 of the Gujarat High Court Rules, 1993, which states that the application also needs to be accompanied by an affidavit stating the reasons why the applicant needs the documents, as he is not a party to both the cases. And that he would provided information only as per the Gujarat High Court rules 1993 and not under the RTI Act.
 
The RTI applicant then filed first appeal with the appellate authority, the registrar of administration of the Gujarat HC. In August 2010, the appeal was dismissed stating that “the alternative efficacious remedy is already available under the Gujarat High Court Rules,1993 for obtaining copies and that under the provisions of RTI Act, no certified copies can be provided.”
 
The appellant hen filed second appeal with the chief information commissioner of Gujarat, who ordered the PIO of the Gujarat High Court to provide information under RTI (as every citizen has the right to procure information in any lawful way he wishes too).
 
The PIO stood by his grounds, which did not convince the state CIC. 
 
Relying upon Sections 6(2) and 22 of the RTI Act, the state CIC, in his order of April 2013, directed the PIO of Gujarat High Court to provide the information sought by the applicant within 20 days. But the PIO once again stood by his earlier stance.
 
The appellant then filed a case in the Gujarat High Court against the first appellate authority (FAA)’s order. The latter asked the PIO to provide information within four weeks adding a rider that supply of information by the High Court “shall not be construed as acceptance of applicability of RTI Act to the High Court.”
 
The PIO appealed to the HC division bench, which set aside the order of the chief information commissioner by observing that when a copy is demanded by any person, it has to be in accordance with the rules of the HC on the subject.
 
The appellant then approached the SC. The appellant’s senior counsel contended on 4 March 2020, that “In view of the inconsistency between the provisions of the RTI Act and the Gujarat High Court Rules, harmonious construction between the two is not possible; however, Section 22 of the RTI Act specifically provides that the provisions of the RTI Act will have an overriding effect over any other laws for the time being in force.”
 
The senior counsel also submitted that “the High Court Rules have been framed in exercise of the powers under Article 225 of the Constitution of India, which would be subject to any other law and the non-obstante clause in Section 22 of the RTI Act shows that the provisions of the RTI Act would override the High Court Rules.”
 
However, in its 4 March 2020 order, the three-judge bench of Justices R Banumathi, AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy pronounced that insisting on providing information as per High Court rules is not inconsistent with the RTI Act.
 
Since the HC rules for procuring information already exists, the provisions of the RTI Act shall not be resorted to, the bench ruled.
 
Supreme Court order on 4th March 2020
 
“We summarise our conclusion:- 
 
(i) Rule 151 of the Gujarat High Court Rules stipulating a third party to have access to the information/obtaining the certified copies of the documents or orders requires to file an application/affidavit stating the reasons for seeking the information, is not inconsistent with the provisions of the RTI Act; but merely lays down a different procedure as the practice or payment of fees, etc. for obtaining information. In the absence of inherent inconsistency between the provisions of the RTI Act and other law, overriding effect of RTI Act would not apply.
 
(ii) The information to be accessed/certified copies on the judicial side to be obtained through the mechanism provided under the High Court Rules, the provisions of the RTI Act shall not be resorted to.”
 
 
(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”.) 
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    Reduce the Number of Pendent Cases, Urges Retd. CIC Shailesh Gandhi
    Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi in an open letter wrote to the current Maharashtra State Chief Information Commissioner Sumit Mullick requesting that he advocate with the government and involve citizens for appointment of new commissioners in order to reduce pendency of appeals and complaints. 
     
    In his letter he wrote, “With humility I would like to point out that it is the job of the Commission to breathe down the neck of the government to persuade them to make the appointments. If you are not able to deliver due to the Government’s laxity, the Commission should share this with citizens so that together we can make our right effective.”
     
    There are over 57,000 appeals and complaints pending with the commission and many of them are pending for over two to three years. Expressing his disappointment, Mr Gandhi further writes, “For a law which promises to deliver information within 30 days a wait of years before the Information Commission makes the law irrelevant. This has also made the PIOs very brazen in not honouring the citizen’s right in Article 19 (1)(a) and made a mockery of the promise by parliament.”
     
    Mr Mullick in 2018 when he had met with Mr Gandhi had assured that all the commissioners would be able to dispose about 890 cases in a month and had also promised decision within 60-90 days. However Mr Gandhi in his letter points out how that never happened, He writes, “A look at the Commission’s disposals for January and February 2020 reveal that about 4500 appeals were decided in this period. Commissioner Shri D.L. Dharurkar alone has disposed over 2000 cases. This means the other four Commissioners disposed an average of about 300 cases per month”. While it might seem like disposing 890-900 cases a month is a mammoth task, Mr Gandhi points out how his predecessor Mr Ratnakar Gaikwad disposed off 5 cases in 20 minutes which shows that it is possible to dispose 900 cases a month. 
     
    Ending it on a hopeful note, Mr Gandhi concludes his letter by writing, “This is one of the best transparency laws in the world and the credit for this goes to parliament and the citizens. We cannot allow it to become infructuous by neglect and carelessness.
     
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    Union Health Ministry Honours RTI: Shares All Updates on Corona Virus; Kerala Follows Suit
    It is official now! India has now enforced the Disaster Management Act and the Epidemic Act, 1897 meant to provide for the better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases, with the pandemic Corona virus engulfing India, with 75 having tested positive, at the last count, spread over several States.
     
    The website of the Union health ministry https://www.mohfw.gov.in/ has admirably opened up a page dedicated to COVID-19, even before you go to its homepage, listing comprehensive details of various aspects of the virus. Besides listing the number of positive cases of the Corona virus in various States and a helpline, it has provided comprehensive information on 25 points.
     
     
    Information on the pandemic virus fits into the category of large public interest and also comes under the suo motu disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act by public authorities. The information available therein falls in its sub-sections V, VI and XIV, which include (v) the rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and records, held by it or under its control; (vi) a statement of the categories of documents that are held by it or under its control; (xiv) details in respect of the information, available to or held by it, reduced in an electronic form and; all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect the public.
     
    The Union health ministry is quickly updating the number of passengers screened at airports; total number of confirmed COVID 2019 cases across India ; State/UT wise list of COVID 19 confirmed cases of Indian and foreign nationals; updating travel advisory as and when. 
     
     
    It has also uploaded the decision making processes like invoking powers under the Disaster Management Act 2005; decisions of high level group of ministers meeting to review the current status and actions for prevention and management of COVID 19; advisory on mass gatherings; updating visa and travel restrictions issued by the bureau of immigration (BOI) after meeting of group of ministers (GoM) from time to time.
     
    Admirably, for the dissemination of information on the virus to various age groups, it has uploaded a comic book for children titled KIDS, VAAYU & CORONA, to provide correct information about COVID-19 and this is making the rounds through WhatsApp groups.
     
     
    Other information includes: advisory for exemptions to mark biometric attendance; discharge policy for suspected or confirmed Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) cases; and a series of documents which are guidelines for prevention and control aimed at health officials and the medical fraternity.
     
    Do see the website for guidelines on use of masks by public as it has stated that only those with cough and cold need to use them while people are buying and wearing them out of fear. 
     
     
    The website also has guidelines for home quarantine; standard operating procedure (SOP) for COVID-19 management- international cruise ships at major Indian ports and correspondence of cabinet secretary, all government of India ministries on COVID-19 management.
     
    It is heartening to note that for once, the deadly pandemic has spurred a public authority to be transparent. However, much needs to be done by the health departments of various States. For example, Maharashtra’s health department website –www.arogya.maharashtra.gov.in - is simply pathetic in this regard. 
     
    In a typo, which says Govid 19 Guidelines, it has just uploaded a huge document.
     
     
    Considering it has the third largest cases amongst all States, it needs to do much more. In stark contrast, the Kerala government’s health department website - http://dhs.kerala.gov.in/ - is filled with information, as vast as the Union ministry’s health website. It has provided comprehensive information in English and Malayalam.
     
    Could the CIC and SCIC’s pitch in by sending circulars to Central and State governments to follow along the lines of the Union health ministry and Kerala? It’s the urgent need of the hour as this pandemic is affecting every citizen in some form or the other. 
     
    (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”.) 
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    COMMENTS

    yerramr

    3 weeks ago

    Now untouchables are sacred, lest beware Covid-19!!

    shankar_1979

    3 weeks ago

    Excellent compilation and honest reporting. There is a sinister trend among several media companies to tarnish the Indian government's efforts to handle this pandemic. However, Moneylife team, your journalistic standards are as high as ever. Keep up the good work.

    glnprasad52

    3 weeks ago

    Never seen this war room strategy and commitment from various levels. Good administration and timely policies.

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