Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday called for maintaining a “fine balance” between the Right to Information (RTI) and the right to privacy, the latter of “which stems out of the Fundamental Right to Life and liberty. The citizens’ right to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy.”
He announced that the government was considering the “issue of [enacting] a separate legislation on privacy” — an expert group, headed by the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice A.P. Shah, was working on it.
Dr. Singh’s views on an individual’s privacy are significant, coming in the wake of recent statements made by Union Ministers in support of Robert Vadra, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, following RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal’s accusations against the dealings of the company owned by Mr. Vadra with housing major DLF. They had termed it as “an issue between two private individuals.”
The Prime Minister, who was inaugurating the seventh annual convention of Information Commissioners here, said: “There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the [RTI] Act in demanding information, the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose. Sometimes, information covering a long time-span or a large number of cases is sought in an omnibus manner with the objective of discovering an inconsistency or mistake which can be criticised. Such queries, besides serving little productive social purpose, are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man hours that could be put to better use.”
Dr. Singh also spoke of there being concerns regarding possible infringement of personal privacy while providing information under the RTI Act. He wanted the convention’s delegates to address issues like how much information entities set up in the Public Private Partnership mode should be obliged to disclose under the RTI Act. “Blanket extension of the Act to such bodies may discourage private enterprises from entering into partnerships with the public sector entity. A blanket exclusion on the other hand may harm the cause of accountability of public officials.”
Dr. Singh said he believed that everyone shared a responsibility to promote a more constructive and productive use of the RTI Act. “This important legislation should not be only about criticising, ridiculing, and running down public authorities. It should be more about promoting transparency and accountability, spreading information and awareness and empowering our citizen,” he said.
There was also a need to change perceptions about the RTI. It should not be viewed as an irritant, “but something that is good for us collectively,” the PM said.
“Role of an umpire”
Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra felt excessive “judicialisation” of Information Commissions would deprive them of a flexible style of functioning. The approach of the Commissions, he said, had always been to act as an umpire standing right on the field along with the players, and not to sit on a pedestal and pronounce oracles.