Freedom to have access to information, as a right, is essential for the functioning of a transparent and accountable democracy. The Right To Information Act 2005 ( RTI Act) in India was enacted to fulfill this goal. Under the RTI Act, the Government of India is duty bound to provide information to its citizens within a specified time. This is however subject to Section 8 of The RTI Act which lays down the grounds for the exemptions from disclosure of information by the Government.
The recent Global Right to Information rating by the Centre for Law and Democracy ranks India in the third place, as far as the overall strength of the legal framework for RTI is concerned. While the intent and the framework for right to information seem to be present, yet the Government is, sometimes, seen as being reluctant to embrace this right of its citizens. Recently the Department of Personnel and Training, issues a circular dated 16.9.2011 whereby it was stated that “ …Only such information can be supplied under the Act which already exists and is held by a public authority or held under the control of a public authority. The Public Information Officer is not supposed to create information or interpret information…”
The circular went on to quote the Supreme Court of India in the matter of Central Board of Secondary Education and Another Vs. Aditya Bandopadhyay and Others(Civil Appeal No. 6454 of 2011) wherein it was held that “ Where the information sought is not a part of the record of a public authority, and where such information is not required to be maintained under any law or the rules or regulations of the public authority, the Act does not cast an obligation upon the public authority, to collect or collate such non-available information and then furnish it to an applicant…”
With the Government, as it is, being bestowed with wide range of exemptions under Section 8 of the RTI Act , this judgment and the following circular further curtail the right to information. With a population as large as India:the idea of information which readily available in an antiquated system of bureaucracy such as ours is a farcical notion. Government records in India are not as yet fully computerized and Public Information Officer in reality have to collate and collect information sought under RTI Act
SFLC has for over the last few months as a part of its CTAG ( Citizens for Accountable and Transparent governance) Project filed a large number of RTI Applications. These RTI applications have been filed for the purposes of obtaining information from various departments of the Government of India on its policies and orders on varied matter especially those that affect the digital freedom. We have found that the Government freely utilizes Section 8 of the RTI Act when information is sought about issues that affect digital freedom. The issues raised by these RTI Applications filed by SFLC have dealt with the violation of basic human rights of the digital citizens of the country. Whether it is the working and authority of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID); or the monitoring of social networks; or internet based financial transactions by the Intelligence Bureau; or even the barring of mobile phone companies from launching Nokia’s popular push mail and power mail messaging services , the information is denied. The denial of information is under Section 8 (1) ( a), or 8 (1) (g), or 8 (1)( h) being put forth as the reason. There is no justification provided how these sections of the RTI Act may be applicable to the information sought. No reason as to why the information sought falls under the ambit of Section 8 of the RTI Act is put forth by the Public Information Officer in any of its replies.
With the Government further vide the above quoted circular advising its Public Information Officer to not create collate or interpret information, the effectiveness of the RTI Act is bound to be diluted further.