When right to information helps the wrong people

28 April 2016

By Shailesh Ghandi

This author is a former Indian information commissioner. This commentary was originally published in The Times of India.

Recently, a newspaper reported that an information commissioner of the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission (TNSIC) had likened RTI applications to frivolous public interest litigation. TNSIC officials feel that of late, they have been seeing many cases where applicants demand ‘frivolous’ information that is not in public interest. Some file RTI applications just to harass government officers, they add.

As an Information Commissioner who dealt with more than 20,000 cases a year, I interacted with numerous RTI users and Public Information Officers (PIOs). Generally , PIOs consider regular applicants to be blackmailers who misuse the Act. I would divide those filing a large number of RTI applications in the following categories: Those who file RTIs with the hope of exposing corruption; those who do so to correct a wrong they feel has been done to them; and those who use RTI to blackmail people, largely targeting illegal activity . There are also those who file RTI applications requiring voluminous data to pressure an individual or organisation to do them a favour.

These repeated appeals comprised around 10% of the total appeals and complaints that I handled.They represent persistent users of RTI who are aware of appeals and procedures. While the first category comprises a rare breed of principled people who deserve to be encouraged, those in the second category, seeking justice for the self, are a tricky set.Faced with such applicants, PIOs should speak to the officer concerned to evaluate if the grievance can be redressed. Members of the third and fourth categories, which hardly exceed 5% of the total applications, are those for whom most of us have a strong aversion.

I feel any law will be misused by some. For instance, criminals use the judicial system to prolong trials. The misuse of any law largely depends on the kind of people in a society and the capability of the justice system to punish wrongdoers. The same is the case with RTI; in this case, a citi zen trying to blackmail an officer with information obtained through RTI pretends to be a vigilance monitor.

Some people say RTI must only be used for public purposes. Justice Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court judge, has said citizens must give reasons why they are seeking the particular information. But this too, cannot be a permanent solution for misuse as it is like restricting the freedom of asking questions.

It is important to distinguish between genuine and frivolous applications and since there is no measure to do so, the best way would be to make government departments more transparent -the very purpose of RTI. Uploading replies on the website for a certain category, for which information is sought repeatedly, may help reduce queries. In case the information sought is not readily available and could take more than 3-4 hours to collate, the applicant could be allowed to inspect the records. The best practice would be to upload all queries and replies on the website. After information has been provided about an issue, subsequent queries can be redirected to the database on the website. This will also help save time and hassle for applicants and the PIO and also expose those filing frivolous applications.

 

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