Is Right to Information life threatening?

I was born in a free country, a country where I used to be assured the liberty of speech and expression, where I could question any political agenda and I could depend on a free and functional media. Unluckily, there are certain individuals who are aiming to take these rights way from citizens like me.

I was born in a free country, a country where I used to be assured the liberty of speech and expression, where I could question any political agenda and I could depend on a free and functional media. Unluckily, there are certain individuals who are aiming to take these rights way from citizens like me.

The government of India has proposed amendments to the RTI Act, one of the most empowering pieces of legislation inherited from the UPA era if not the most empowering legislation for the common man.

On 31st July, 2012, the Central Government notified the RTI Rules under Section 27 of the Right to Information Act, 2005. The Rules provided that an RTI application will ordinarily be not more than 500 words (subject to exception) with a nominal fee being charged from each applicant.

However, legality of the CIC (Management) regulations of 2007 was challenged before the Delhi High Court and these were quashed. The matter has been pending before the Supreme Court. The Government therefore decided, in consultation with the CIC, that a comprehensive set of rules be notified by consolidating the key provisions of CIC (Management) Regulations and also the Rules of 2012. Same had been put up in public domain for comments. 
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The key provisions of the RTI Rules, 2012 have been identically incorporated verbatim except the provision whereby the RTI application stands disposed of if the applicant passes away. Otherwise no changes have been made in the RTI fee structure.

The most controversial amendment pertained to Rule 12. It would allow the withdrawal of an application in case of the applicant’s death, making the job of those who file RTIs even more risky.

Imperative to Protect the Applicant

We should also consider giving RTI activists greater cover by keeping the names and personal details of applicants confidential. The requested information should be in the public domain, assuming, of course, that the request is considered fair. In the UK's Freedom of Information Act, applicants' names are always blanked out; even in communications between government departments and in public uploads of responses to queries.

The RTI activists are already exposed to violence, all the more so as the Whistle Blowers Protection Act (2011) has not yet beeen implemented. Sixty-nine activists have been killed, according to the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. Besides, the NCPRI presents on its website the case of 130 RTI activists who have been victims of assault and 170 others who are victims of harrassment. Of the 268 cases whose location is known, 100 belong to rural India, a clear sign that the RTI has also been owned in the village.

No, the structure should not have been amended. However the nexus between the mafia, politicians and corrupt officers is making sure that any one who seeks to collect information against them is killed.

The objective of the Act was to ensure to all citizens the right to ask the government and all public offices to “furnish whatever information or knowledge was sought by the citizens who want to have it.”. The issue is that it provided no provisions for protection for the applicants who choose to put themselves in the risky limelight where any powerful person may be able to cull the voice of dissent.

The logical question which must be asked of the government is- what exactly is the point of closing an RTI application once the applicant is dead? It is almost a scenario where the government is actually suggesting that a question asked only necessitates a response if the questioner is alive. What matters is the question and the information from the government regarding the query, which seeks to establish an objective truth based on facts, and not what condition the questioner might be in—for the well-being of the questioner, there is need for other legislation, which has not been provided by the government.

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Certain Applicants who were murdered pending their RTI Application

1. RTI activist Shehla Masood was shot and killed near her residence on sixteen August 2011 in Bhopal.

2. Uttar Pradesh Police Homeguard Mr. Babbu Singh was once allegedly killed even as he used to be seeking knowledge concerning govt funds in his village.

3. Amit Jethwa who tried to reveal the unlawful mining pursuits in Gir forest was shot lifeless by means of two assiliants on motorcycle in July 2010.

4. A different RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra was killed for exposing several scams in welfare schemes in Bihar.

Satish Shetty from Talegaon Dabhade near Pune. Shetty was an RTI activist who fearlessly raised his voice against corruption and had taken the revenue officials and corporates for illegal-land grabbing along the Mumbai-Pune expressway was killed after the police overlooked his complaint about a possible threat to his life for taking on the powerful people in the region

Disclosure of Applicants names, postal addresses- a risk which serves no Public Interest

The Kolkata High Court had issued directives in 2013 stating that there should be no diclosure on the name and postal addresses of the applicants which were followed by a couple of orders by the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT), whereby all public authorities have been asked to refrain from uploading the postal address of the Right to Information (RTI) applicant.

In reality though this postal address is mentioned in every application and in most replies by public information officers (PIOs), first appellate authority (FAA) and in Central Information Commission (CIC) decisions too.  Hence the orders by DoPT are being blatantly flouted, thus putting the individual RTI applicant to possible risk of life and safety.

This situation has arisen due to series of DoPT’s circulars to public authorities to upload replies under RTI as a part of suo motu disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act. Since these documents are uploaded, as is, the personal information of the applicant is inadvertently being made public.

On 23 March, 2016, the DoPT appealed to the public to send their suggestions on the manner in which the disclosure of RTI applications, replies by the PIOs, appellate authorities (AA) and CIC decisions should be uploaded on the relevant official websites. The DoPT in its draft (see here: OM dated 23/03/2016,)  has yet again recommended, “…the public authorities may note that while pro-actively disclosing RTI applications and appeals received and responses thereto on their website, the personal information of an individual should not be disclosed.”

Earlier to this, regarding guidelines of implementation of suo motu disclosures, the Department had issued a circular on 15 April 2014, which stated, “All public authorities shall proactively disclose RTI applications and appeals received and their responses on the website maintained by public authorities with search facility based on key words. RTI applications and appeals received and their responses relating to personal information of an individual may not be disclosed, as they do not serve any public interest.”

The DoPT further reiterated on 21 October 2014 that, “RTI applications and appeals received and their responses relating to the personal information of an individual may not be disclosed if they do not serve public interested.”

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Always Actively Seek Police Protection

The RTI Act doesn’t include any provisions for protectionrof applicants who seek information. Although police protection can be obtained under the provisions of Police Act, IPC and Crpc. The current law requires the person who desires to seek protection must reach out either via email or otherwise to the police. In case the police fail to provide the required protection, the aggrieved needs to move the High Court under Section 482 of the CrPC through a writ filed under Article 226. The court can issue a writ of mandamus directing the police authorities to present safety to the person if it is satisfied that:

1. There is impending danger to the person and

2. The authorities have failed to perform their duties

Protection under the Whistleblower's Act

A whistleblower is a person who raises his voice against any illegal act done by another person or the one who reports an act of corruption. This terminology has been greatly emphasized under the WHISTLEBLOWERS PROTECTION ACT, 2014. This act enables any person who may be a whistleblower to report an act of corruption or to report against those who misuse their power or discretion or to report an act against criminal offence done by a public servant. The word public servant here shall include Ministers, Members of parliament, the lower judiciary, regulatory authorities, central and state government employees(Section 3 (i), Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2014)

The police had been hesitant in offering safety to these activists. Sadly our police is influenced and controlled by money and political power. Shockingly, there have been occasions the place law enforcement officials have deliberately pressured or framed false expenditures towards RTI activists. As recounted above, if the police fail to take any action the recourse is via the court but even the safeguard provided below CrPC has an awfully limited scope.

Additionally, the RTI applicatio requires the applicant to furnish personal information, picture identification and the names of their father/partner.The provision of these details makes the applicant susceptible to assaults. It it absolutely imperative that modification be made in the RTI act itself to furnish safeguard to applicants.
The Whistleblower Act  doesn’t entirely safeguard the pursuits of the RTI activists. For instance the Act bars all complaints against police and military. To seek the ‘disclosure’; the complainant is required to demonstrate any loss to the government or undue advangate or profit gained to the public servant regarding the act in question.