This is a difficult moment. The Supreme Court has expressed its disapproval of the abuse of the Right to Information Act that, according to the Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, is causing ‘paralysis’ among government officers, who are hesitating to take decisions. The RTI law can be an instrument of intimidation it seems, a form of blackmail, that can harm productivity by engaging numerous officers in excavating answers to RTI queries within the stipulated time. A Supreme Court bench headed by the CJI was hearing a petition regarding the opacity in the appointment of information commissioners in spite of a directive from the Supreme Court in February. Reportedly, the CJI was particularly stern in indicating that it cannot be claimed there is no abuse of the RTI law.
The Supreme Court has always insisted on transparency in matters of public interest. Its comments regarding the right to know lay behind the movement that led to the enactment of the RTI Act. Most recently, the court has ruled that the CJI would come under the purview of the same law. Yet reports of abuse seem to have disappointed the court by apparently tainting the fair and forward-looking values that underlie its insistence on transparency. This was revealed in the CJI’s remarks about guidelines for the RTI Act, the need for a ‘filter’ and knowledge of the enquirer’s ‘locus’. This is a pity, because all laws are abused, but they are all there for a reason. If the people’s right to know is no longer based on the widest understanding of public interest, if it is ‘filtered’ or the enquirer’s ‘locus’ made a condition of the response, then the law will become easily malleable in the hands of government officials who need an alibi not to answer. The point of the law will be gone, the people’s right taken away. No court can endorse that. Particularly at a time when the government in power is uninterested in transparency and goes ahead with laws, policies and less defined decisions with no discussion or notice. This is when the RTI Act should be given strength — abuse can be penalized — and not watered down.