Disclosure of interest in information sought under RTI Act necessary to establish bonafides of applicant, says Delhi HC; Act says no reason need be given

The Delhi High Court Tuesday opined that whenever information is sought under the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005, disclosure of an interest in the information sought would be necessary to establish the bonafides of the RTI applicant.

It added that non-disclosure of the same could result in injustice to persons connected to those about whom information was sought.

Justice Pratibha M Singh was hearing a petition challenging the decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC) refusing to order the disclosure of the names and residential addresses of the fathers of those candidates who were appointed as part of the Multi-Tasking Staff in the President’s Secretariat.

Justice Prathiba M. Singh.

RTI applicant Har Kishan had sought information in respect of certain appointments made for the MultiTasking Staff at the Presidential Estate, Rashtrapati Bhawan.

During the proceedings, the Court found that the Petitioner’s daughter had also applied for an appointment as a member of the Multi-Tasking Staff. However, this fact did not find any mention in the writ petition.

It also noted that the petition showed that he himself was earlier working in the Presidential Estate on an ad-hoc basis, from 2012-2017.

Justice Singh, thus, observed that the petition before the Court was “cleverly quiet” about the fact that the Petitioner’s daughter had applied for being considered for appointment as a member of the Multi-Tasking Staff at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

“The seeking of the above information, especially after the Petitioner’s daughter did not obtain employment, clearly points to some ulterior motives”, Justice Singh said.

On merits of the case, the Court held that the information sought in respect of the names of the candidates’ fathers and their residential addresses was “completely invasive”, and would be a “roving and fishing” enquiry.

“The said information which is sought is clearly protected under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act which provides that any such information shall not be provided which constitutes personal information and is invasive of the privacy of individuals”, the Court held.

The Court also imposed costs of Rs. 25,000/- on the petitioner for having concealed the material facts including that his daughter had applied for an appointment as a member of the MultiTasking Staff.

Speaking to The Leaflet, former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Shailesh Gandhi said that the Court’s observations that an RTI applicant is required to show their interest in the information sought to establish their bonafides, was unfortunate and completely contrary to Section 6 (2) of the RTI Act.

Shailesh Gandhi, Former Central Information Commissioner.

Section 6(2) of the RTI Act provides that an applicant making a request for information is not required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him.

Gandhi added that the RTI was a fundamental right of citizens under Article 19 (1)(a). The right to free speech, the right to publish and the right to information were all fundamental rights of citizens under this article and were on par. “What applies to one of these applies mutatis mutandis to the other two.”

“If citizens have to give reasons and establish bonafides to seek information, they will have to start giving reasons for speaking and publishing. The comment of the High Court is contrary to the law and the Constitution and is an unfortunate curtailment of citizens fundamental rights”, Gandhi told The Leaflet.

Transparency activist Venkatesh Nayak told The Leaflet that the High Court’s observations were in complete violation of the letter and spirit of the RTI Act.

“Not only the Supreme Court but several High Courts including previous Benches of the Delhi High Court have ruled repeatedly that motives or reasons for seeking information have no relevance in the decision making process of a CPIO or an appellate authority or even the Information Commission”, Nayak said.

Venkatesh Nayak.

Referring to an order passed by the Madras High Court sometime ago requiring reasons for seeking information, Nayak recalled that the High Court had quickly recanted that portion of its order when the error was pointed out through the media.

Nayak who is the Programme Head of the Access to Information at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) hoped that the Delhi High Court would also recognise its error and rectify its opinion.

Agreeing with Shailesh Gandhi, Nayak also said the RTI was a deemed fundamental right within the meaning and scope of the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Fundamental rights do not require reasons when the rights bearer exercises them. That is why they are called fundamental rights.

Transparency activist Anjali Bhardwaj took to Twitter to slam the High Court’s ruling. Referring to Section 6(2) of the RTI Act, Bharadwaj said the High Court order completely ignores this very section which says that the information seeker “shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information”.

“The whole objective of the RTI law will be defeated if PIOs are empowered to use their discretion to decide the bonafides of the applicant while disclosing information”, Bhardwaj told The Leaflet.

She demanded that the order be recalled.

The Leaflet also spoke to advocate Prasanna S who said Delhi HC’s observations that an RTI applicant is required to show their interest in the information sought is completely contrary to the statute and those observations do not have the force of law inasmuch they are contrary to what a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court said in the CJI office case.

Justice DY Chandrachud in his separate but concurring opinion in the CJI office under RTI Act case saidClause (2) of Section 6 of the RTI Act provides that an information applicant need not provide any reason for the information sought. It would not be open for an Information Officer to deny the disclosure of information on the ground that the information would lead to confusion, embarrassment or unnecessary debate in the public sphere”.

Read the Order