Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Resurrecting the Right to Know

The Right to Know provided under the Right to Information Act 2005 is a fundamental right under Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.
By IASToppers
August 19, 2020

Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Right to Know
  • Right to Information
  • Official Secrets Act
  • Right to Know and OSA
  • Recent issue
  • Popular rulings
  • Conclusion

Resurrecting the Right to Know

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Introduction:

Right to Know is the foundational basis or the direct emanation for the Right to Information. The resurrection of Right to Know is important as India is increasingly witnessing an unfortunate denial of information.

Right to Know:

  • The Right to Know provided under the Right to Information Act 2005 is not a mere statutory right, but the fundamental right under Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.
  • It is an effective device in the hands of citizens which would help them become more informed.
  • The objective was to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority to strengthen the core constitutional values of a democratic republic.
  • After the enforcement of the RTI Act, our country has become a participatory democracy from that of representative democracy.

Right to Information:

  • The Right to Information Act 2005, came into force to encourage a corruption-free, transparent and accountable form of government.
  • Under the act, a citizen can demand from any public or government authority any information (as long as it does not pertain to national security and defence or some personal information).
  • The authority is supposed to respond within 30 days to the application.
  • The Act made it mandatory for computerizing the records so that any information sought by the public can be processed quickly aided by the information categorization.
  • The right to information, like other right is subject to several exemptions/exceptions which include areas like National Security, Military, Deployment, International Relations.

Official Secrets Act:

  • The Official Secrets Act was first enacted in 1923 and was retained after Independence.
  • The law applies to government servants and citizens.
  • It provides the framework for dealing with espionage, sedition, and other potential threats to the integrity of the nation.
  • The punishable offences under the law are spying, sharing secret information, unauthorised use of uniforms, withholding information, interference with armed forces in prohibited/restricted areas etc.
  • If guilty, a person may get up to 14 years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.
  • The information could be any reference to a place belonging to or occupied by the government, documents, photographs, sketches, maps, plans, models, official codes or passwords.

Right to Know and OSA:

  • OSA had become a contentious issue after the implementation of the Right to Information Act.
  • Since OSA does not define secret or official secrets, so the Public servants could deny any information terming it a secret when asked under the RTI Act.
  • However, in case of conflict between the two laws, the provisions of the RTI Act override those of the OSA.
  • Section 22 of the RTI Act states that its provisions will have effect notwithstanding anything that is inconsistent with them in the OSA.
  • Under Section 8(2) of the RTI Act, a public authority may allow access to the information covered under the OSA – if the public interest outweighs the harm to the protected interests.

Recent issue:

  • A High-Level Committee chaired by a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court was constituted by the Home Ministry on July 15, 2019.
  • Its mandate was, among others, to recommend measures to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord and define Assamese People.
  • The HLC finalised its report by mid-February 2020 and submitted it to the Assam Chief Minister soon after.
  • He handed over the report to the Union Home Minister on March 20.
  • But the Central government sat idle over the report, so, the All Assam Students’ Union (represented HLC) released the report on August 11, 2020.
  • The reasons for the release were the Central government’s inaction on the report and the people’s right to know.

Popular Rulings:

1. State of U.P. v. Raj Narain (1975):

  • SC carved out a class of documents that demand protection even though their contents may not be damaging to the national interest.
  • Justice Mathew held that the people of India have a Right to Know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries.
  • They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing.
  • The Right to Know, which is derived from the concept of Freedom of Speech, though not absolute, should make one wary, when secrecy is claimed for transactions.

2. Yashwant Sinha v. Central Bureau of Investigation (2019):

  • SC held that there is no provision by which Parliament had vested power in the government either to restrain the publication of documents marked as secret or from placing such documents before a court of law.
  • Justice K.M. Joseph referred to Section 8(2) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 which provides that a citizen can get a certified copy of a document even if the matter pertains to security or relationship with a foreign nation if a case is made out.
  • Therefore, it is clear that the right to know can be curtailed only in limited circumstances and if there is an overriding public interest.

Conclusion:

  • If secrecy is observed in the functioning of government and the processes of government are kept hidden from public scrutiny, it would tend to promote and encourage oppression, corruption and misuse or abuse of authority.
  • The right to know is not meant for gratifying idle curiosity or mere inquisitiveness but is essential for the effective functioning of democracy. Hence, it is a powerful tool at the hands of the public to check on the stakeholders and fix accountability.
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