500 RTI Rejections at the SC: The ‘Other’ Face of Transparency
Out of the 5,585 RTI applications received in 2020 and 2021, the SC rejected 537 with a majority coming under the 'Other' category.
Passed in 2005, the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) seeks to empower citizens, contain corruption, and make democracy work for the people.
However, this right to information is not an unrestricted right. Its exercise must be balanced against national interest, privacy, and in certain instances, confidentiality.
This reasonable restriction on accountability extends to the Supreme Court’s functioning as well. The Supreme Court’s Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), enjoys the authority to reject RTI requests on grounds laid down in the Act.
SCO has previously reported on the SC’s grounds for rejecting RTI applications received by it between 2006 and 2018. However, a few tumultuous years down the line, how has the Court justified rejections during 2020 and 2021?
RTI Rejections: Reading Between the Lines
In compliance with the Central Information Commission’s periodic transparency audits, the SC’s CPIO produces quarterly reports on RTI applications received, replied to, and rejected.
These reports break down the number of RTI applications pending from the previous quarter, and the number of applications transferred from and to other public authorities. They mention the total number of applications rejected as well as the grounds for their rejection.
In 2020 and 2021, a total of 5,900 RTI applications were received. Of these, 1,528 were transferred from other public authorities while the remaining 4,372 were directly filed at the Supreme Court. Of these, 315 were transferred to other public authorities at the Court.
Accounting for the applications transferred to and from other public authorities, the Court is left with 5,585 RTI applications. Of these, 537 applications were rejected outright while another 777 first appeals were subsequently rejected.
Why Are RTI Applications Being Rejected?
Different provisions of the RTI Act have been invoked a total of 743 times—including 346 rejections on the grounds of ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ category has not been defined in the Act.
Interestingly, the ‘Other’ category has been invoked almost as much as the total number of times every other category has been invoked. On the other hand, rejections on the basis of Sections 9, 11, and 24—which deal with copyright infringement, confidential third party information, and sensitive security information respectively—have not been invoked even once despite being primary exemptions.
It is unclear whether the use of the ‘Others’ category alludes to procedural or substantive grounds for rejection. If no there is no reasonable explanation to uphold the validity of the ‘Others’ category, the reasonable implication would be that a rejection under the ‘Others’ category is an arbitrary exercise of power.
On the other hand, if there are reasonable underlying grounds supporting rejections on the basis of the ‘Others’ category, then clarifying the latter’s use will go a long way in upholding the accountability of not just the Court, but other government institutions as well.
It may also go a long way in avoiding controversies such as those on the Collegium’s transparency, while resolving the Court’s views on the Right to Information.