Right to Information Act, 2005

It came into force on 12th October, 2005. The basic object of it is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, control corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense. It goes without saying that an informed citizen is better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed. The Act is a big step towards making the citizens informed about the activities of the Government.

Right to information is accessible under the Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes a right to inspection of work, documents, records, taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records, taking separate samples of material or obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device.

All citizens shall have the right to information except people of J & K as the act extends to the whole country except State of Jammu & Kashmir. Section 6 tells that any “person” may request for information in writing or through electronic means English or Tamil along with fees  thus, the word “person” is defined under section 3(42) of the General Clauses Act, 1897 and shall include any company, or association or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not. An applicant making request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him.

It applies to both the Central and State Governments and all public authorities including public Sector, government funded organizations/ institutions, schools, hospitals, etc. The public authority is bound to furnish the information, maintain the records for easy access and to publish within 120 days the name of the particular officers who should give the same and in regard to the framing of the rules, regulations etc. and to be disseminated in the prescribed form and manner. In Thalappalam Ser. Coop. Bank Ltd. & others Versus State of Kerala & others, Supreme Court held that any private organisations, including NGOs, which is substantially funded by the government , is within the ambit of Public authority under RTI.

Third party means a person other than the citizen making a request for information and includes a public authority thus, anyone other than the appellant or the respondent. In matters where an appellant is seeking information not regarding his or her own activities, or is asking for details of shared records that list details of several persons other than him or her, information cannot be provided until the third party consents to disclosure and subsequently until the Central Public Information Office after considering the implications of such disclosure allows it. PIO intends to disclose an information supplied by a third party which he has treated as confidential, the PIO, before taking a decision to disclose the information shall invite him to make submission in the matter.

In the case of state of Uttar Pradesh Vs Raj Narain (1974) 4 SCC 428, Supreme Court of India said that the Right to Information is included in the right to freedom of speech and expression explicitly guaranteed in Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. “It is not in the interest of the public to cover with a veil of secrecy the common routine business – the responsibility of officials to explain and to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression and corruption.” India is a democracy and people are the masters thus, they have a right to know how the governments, meant to serve them, are functioning. Further, every citizen pays taxes; even a beggar on the street pays tax as he buys soap, etc. Therefore, they have a right to know how their money is being spent. The Act also empowers every citizen to ask any questions from the Government or seek any information, take copies of any government documents, inspect any government documents/works or take samples of materials of any Government work.

The public information officer on a receipt of the request, as expeditiously provide the information within 30 days with the prescribed fees or reject the same. Most of all, various exemptions are mentioned from the disclosure of information that are:

a)      Affect the Sovereignty, integrity of country, security, strategy, etc.

b)      Prohibited by any Court of Law or lead to contempt of court.

c)      Breach of Privilege of Parliament or State Legislature.

d)      Commercial Confidence, Trade Secret, intellectual Prosperity and would harm the competitive position of a third party, until for a large public.

e)      Information available in any fiduciary relationship.

f)       Information received in confidence from any Foreign Government.

g)      The disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person.

h)      Impede the process of investigation, apprehension or prosecution of offenders.

i)        Cabinet papers and records of deliberations provided the decision of the council of ministers shall be made public in the near future.

j)        Personal information, disclosure of which has no relation to the public but would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy.

k)      Information not denied to parliament or state legislation to not deny.

l)        Decisions reasons and relevant material allowed after the matter is closed.

An appeal can be filed either by applicant or by the third party within 30 days from the receipt of decision given by PIO to the senior officer. But a second appeal within 90 days from the date of receipt of decision may be filled to the Central Information Commission for Central Government Departments there is a State Information Commission for state Government and there decision shall be mandatory.

Using RTI difficult for us, say Indians abroad

Living overseas for education, employment or other reasons, Indians abroad find it difficult to use the Right to Information (RTI) Act due to the cumbersome fee-payment process.

‘Even after five years of the RTI Act, Indian citizens living abroad are unable to use it effectively because of a cumbersome fee payment system. The Indian government has not framed any rules or procedures for the payment of RTI fee in foreign currency from abroad,’ Commodore Lokesh Batra, an RTI applicant, said.

Batra, a Noida resident, had already raised the issue with the Indian mission in Washington citing problems faced by Indians living abroad in filing RTI applications while he was staying in the US.

Many Indians living abroad say they have the right to know their roles, rights, duties, responsibilities and privileges.

When IANS contacted a few Indian citizens living abroad, they said the amendment to the RTI rules promulgated by the Department of Personnel Training (DoPT) Dec 10, 2010, are silent on the process of fee payment while filing RTI pleas from outside India’s borders.

According to Batra, all Indian citizens living abroad, including those who are residing abroad during short visits, citizens who stay abroad for education and job purposes and even officials posted in Indian missions or on deputation to international bodies, face the same problem while filing RTI applications there.

‘It is shameful that the Indian government is continuously denying our right to information,’ Somu Kumar, a volunteer of the Anti-Corruption Team (ACT) of the non-profit group Association for India’s Development (AID), told on phone from Washington D.C.

‘We, Indians living oversees for education and employment, pay taxes in India. We feel as Indian taxpayers we have equal right to access information from the Indian government,’ he added.

Kumar said it is the responsibility of the chief information commissioner and the external affairs and overseas Indian affairs ministries (MEA and MOIA) to implement an effective mechanism to file RTI applications in India.

‘If there is enough will among the powers that be, this can be implemented in no time,’ he said.

Said Vishal Kudchadkar, from Los Angeles, a volunteer of US-based AID: ‘I seek information via RTI as I’m associated with social and environmental development projects. I seek information related to dams on the Ganga and the Bhopal gas tragedy.’

‘As there is no mode of payment of fees in dollars, it is difficult for me to use the RTI Act,’ he added.

However, though difficult, Kudchadkar has found an alternative way to overcome this problem – ‘contacting friends in India and asking them to pay the fee on my behalf while submitting applications. I did the same when I wanted some information on Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh’.

But, he said, this method is not only cumbersome but also delays the filing of the application. Kudchadkar demanded that the government come up with specific procedures to help Indians abroad pay fees in foreign currencies.

As in the case of Beena Rag from Texas, who had filed an RTI query on the Nandigram Special Economic Zone (SEZ), many queries filed abroad – at Indian high commissions and embassies – via the RTI Act are rejected and the applicants are advised to address their applications directly to the public authorities in India.

AID has also appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene in the matter since the issue involves multiple agencies like the Central Information Commission, MEA, MOIA and DoPT.

In an online signature campaign by AID, as many as 316 signatures have been made by Indian citizens abroad till date.

In the campaign, K.R.S. Vasan from Saudi Arabia posted, ‘Dear prime minister, we fervently hope that you will enable the right of Indians residing abroad to exercise their rights under the RTI Act, by directing the missions and designated agencies to accept fees in local currency and act as the nodal agency in respect of such applications.’

Joseph Mathew Austin, Texas, posted, ‘I sincerely believe that the RTI services should be accessible for Indian citizens living abroad and Indian missions can effectively provide an administrative role.’

CIC chief Satyananda Mishra expressed his willingness to improve the process and said the Commission was looking into the problems faced by Indians living abroad while seeking information via the RTI Act.

‘I totally agree with Indians abroad. They have every right to seek information via RTI. It is an issue that needs to be addressed and there will be a solution soon.’