“The way information commission and courts are interpreting section 8(i)(j) of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is extremely regressive. There are judgements in our country that uphold RTI to be a fundamental right of citizens. There are also judgements, like the Puttuswamy judgement, which claim privacy is a fundamental right. These are rights that co-exist in all democracies. I do not think we are the only ones who are trying to balance these,” says Anjali Bhardwaj while speaking at a webinar organised by Moneylife Foundation.
“Section 8 (i)(j) has become a favourite device to deny information. Any information that people ask, if it appears personal even from a distance, this section is being used to denyit. But the other issue is, other exemptions are also being misused to deny people their right to information, sometimes to the extent that they do not specify which section they are using to reject information. They outright refuse to provide information, ” she added, further expanding on the question of privacy, RTI and exemptions.
It was part of an RTI series called “Conversations on RTI with Shailesh Gandhi,” organised by Moneylife Foundation.
Ms Bhardwaj has been associated with the RTI movement since its initial days. Kick-starting the conversations, Mr Gandhi asked her to share how the RTI Act came into existence and the movement in Delhi that led to its formation.
“The RTI movement came about in India because of a strong people’s movement. But before that movement, we have had progressive judgements from the Supreme Court upholding the Right to Information. The grassroots movement brought together a whole lot of people from different socioeconomic classes and different background professions, and I think it enriched the entire demand for the law and also the framing of the legislation itself,” she says.
“Even before the national law, nine states including Delhi had a state-level RTI act. This helped give people a flavour of what the Act could do and how empowering the Right to Information could be,” she added.
We have one of the most brilliant transparency acts in India. Still, we often seem to fall short in its implementation, including stakeholders like the public information officers (PIOs), appeal authorities, and commissioners.
However, Ms Bhardwaj had a slightly different point of view to share. “The right to information was flowing from Article 19 of the Constitution. So it was already a right. What we needed was a system to enforce these laws, which is what the RTI Act did.”
“Today, I feel that people are using the RTI Act well to access information. That implementation is near perfect. But on the other hand, the process of giving access to information from governmental bodies has not been implemented. Major bottleneck in access to information has been the adjudicators and the unfortunate misinterpretation of the Act,” she says.
Ms Bhardwaj is the founder of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, an organisation based in Delhi which prepares reports on information commissioners, their performance and their case disposal.
Speaking about the report, she says, “Issues that we have found through our routine objective reports on information commissions like delay in appointing information commisisoners and the information commissions operating on reduced capacity. Even there are issues like the qualification of the information commissioners being appointed. The majority are male and are former bureaucrats. There is no transparency in the process for the selection of such commissioners.”
“Functioning of commissions is problematic on many levels. Some are so inefficient that many cases are pending, but they are still continuing to adjudicate on just four cases in a day,” Ms Bhardwaj pointed out.
Taking the subject a little further and speaking on the appointment of commissioners themselves, Ms Bhardwaj shared, “The government were pretty smart. They understood the importance of commissioners and have continuously been laid back in appointing new commissioners. Because commissioners aren’t appointed on time, pendency is also a huge problem. It goes to such an extent that people stop asking for the information.”
The most surprising issue is the fact that there is no transparency in the process through which information commissioners themselves are appointed.
Mr Gandhi, a former central information commissioner, asked Ms Bhardwaj her views and ideas of an ideal information commissioner. “The government at one point also appointed someone who headed the intelligence bureau! Someone whose entire bureaucratic career was spent preventing the flow of information is now responsible for ensuring transparency. An ideal information commissioner should have some level of interest on issues of transparency or must have done some work towards achieving transparency in their careers,” she says.
One of the RTI movement’s most significant advantages is how it has seeped into all sections and activities across the country. “Every movement - whether it is for tribal rights, Right to Food or any other movement, has realised the importance of information and how it can be utilised effectively to progress their movement forward,” Ms Bhardwaj added.
The conversation was followed by a Q&A, which saw the attendance of some senior RTI activists, including Commodore Lokesh Batra, Senior RTI activist and Vinita Deshmukh, Consulting Editor, Moneylife, among others.
You can watch the full video here:
Note: You can now get all your RTI related queries resolved with the click of a button. The Moneylife “RTI Advice” app is now live on the Google Playstore and the Apple playstore. So download and ask all your RTI related queries now!