Sunday , September 20 2020

'I have been single army': That long-running battle of transparency activist to bring SPP under RTI law


New Delhi: From running an information campaign through RTI to winning the Supreme Court case on Wednesday that now puts the office of the Chief Justice of India in an RTI clinic, it has been a long journey for RTI activist Subash Agarwal.

Launched in 2007 when Agarwal demanded a "copy of the resolution" ordering each judge to declare his assets. After a series of legal ups and downs in a case that has seen intense scrutiny in the offices of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), the Delhi High Court, a bench of 3 Supreme Court judges, and now the fifth constitutional bench of the Supreme Court have submitted it what Aggarwal describes as a "verdict". Here are the edited excerpts from Agarwal's interview with News18.

How do you see the bench's ruling on the constitution?

I think it is an important judgment that will give a huge boost to our mission of transparency. This is a victory of the RTI Act. Much of the information that citizens seek is blocked by challenges in different courts. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that even the STI office is in an RTI setting, it will be of great help. Will has enormous practical consequences.

There has been much criticism of the RTI bill by activists across the country. A former union minister described his approval in Lock Sabha as a "gloomy day for democracy". How do you see these developments?

I think that the RTI Act in its absolute essence has not been changed in the amendment. The interference has been made in cases such as appointments, which some people claim will put the independence of the RTI at serious risk. I think this is a question that the government is in a better position to answer.

A number of criticisms have been leveled and the government has increased the number of pending RTI applications.

I was a single army from day one. Previously, I would submit one RTI a day. But since I couldn't handle the whole thing – submitting an RTI, appealing against non-disclosure of information at different levels – the frequency of my applications also decreased. I reached out to many NGOs who asked for help, but I did not receive it. I can only speak for myself, and my answer is that although the number of RTIs I have submitted is naturally reduced, none of them have been rejected, I think, because of the "directions from above".

You also find that many people confuse the RTI, which is a means of obtaining information, with a complaint complaint cell, which is not. Whenever I go to college, schools, instruct them how to submit RTIs, I tell them this is a Right to Information tool, submit it appropriately and you will get the information you want.

Does today's ruling shed light on whether college decisions will be announced?

For that I will have to go through a full judgment. In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that if the Chief Public Information Officer intends to impart information, then he may request "third party" comments. Now, if it comes to communication between Supreme Court judges and Supreme Court judges, then it is clear who the third party is. But in the case of a panel, whether it concerns the members of the panel or the judges listed in the proceedings of the panel, he will have to wait to find out.

Some argue that the right to information can potentially clash with judicial independence.

Judicial independence should be paramount, but that does not eliminate the question of transparency. It started with a request for correspondence between a Supreme Court judge and the then Chief Justice of India in which a High Court judge claimed that the Union Minister had tried to influence him. Providing that correspondence would only strengthen judicial independence is my argument.

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