Remove needless RTI exemptions

The rap on the knuckles that the Environment Ministry recently got from the Central Information Commission (CIC) over the Amrut Mahal Kaval grasslands in Karnataka was well deserved. Despite 10 years of implementation of the landmark Right to Information Act, 2005, the default response of government officials appears to be to block information rather than share it with the public. In this case, the RTI applicant had sought details from the Union ministry of the ongoing construction projects in the ecologically sensitive area in Chitradurga district, and if the National Green Tribunal’s directives on its conservation were being followed. It was a reasonable request, given the concern over the grasslands – an ecosystem important to wildlife like the near-extinct Great Indian Bustard and to communities which call the area their home. Portions of it have apparently been parcelled off to organisations like the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Space Research Organisation and Indian Institute of Science. When the applicant didn’t get a satisfactory answer from the ministry, he approached the final appellate authority. The CIC trashed the ministry’s argument that the information sought by him couldn’t be given because it would impact national security.

The CIC ruling highlights the need for amending the exemption clauses in the RTI Act which allow bureaucrats to scuttle RTI queries. Earlier this year, an RTI application by a Deccan Herald correspondent seeking details about the restructuring plan the ailing SpiceJet airline had submitted to the government, was rebuffed. The ground for denying information was that such disclosure would affect the competitive position of a third party. Like the exemption on the basis of national strategic interests, the ‘competitive position’ clause is liable to be used as a pretext for not being transparent. There is a need to remove unconvincing restrictions like this one too.

True, there need to be checks on the kind of information that can be released to the public. Leave alone weightier concerns like national security, the RTI set-up has to deal with applicants wishing to pry into private lives. Or to score political points. Such applications no doubt tax the system under which an estimated two million queries are filed every year. But activists insist that ‘frivolous’ queries form only a tiny percentage of them. In any case, this is a small price to pay for a having a transparency law that empowers the common man against the might of babudom, traditionally wary of sharing information. And, as the recent CIC decision advises, information officers should not claim exemptions to the RTI law “without applying their minds”.

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