The Delhi High Court has set aside ‘as not sustainable’ the order of the Central Information Commission declaring every minister a “public authority” under the Right to Information Act.
Justice Vibhu Bakhru overturned the March 12, 2016, order of the CIC, by which it was declared that “the Ministers in the Union Government and all State Governments as ‘public authorities’ under Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005”.
The court also set aside the directions issued by the CIC to the Central and state governments to provide the necessary support to each minister, including designating some officers or appointing the said officers as Public Information Officers and first appellate authorities, besides giving an official website to the ministers for suo moto disclosure of information with periodical updating as prescribed under Section 4 of the RTI Act.
Besides this, the CIC recommendation that the oath of secrecy taken by the ministers be replaced with the oath of transparency also stands overturned with the high court holding them to be “totally out of scope of the CIC”.
The high court order came on appeal moved by the Centre against the CIC order. The Centre was represented by standing counsel Jasmeet Singh. A similar appeal moved by Sikkim through advocates Aruna Mathur and Avneesh Arputham also stands disposed of.
The high court was of the view that there was no occasion for the CIC to go into the question whether a minister is a public authority under the RTI Act when the appeal filed before it only complained of delay in providing of response.
The case emanates from the application of Hemant Dhage who had filed an application on November 20, 2014, before the Additional Private Secretary, Minister of Law and Justice seeking to know the time period of minister or minister of state meeting the general public.
Since the information as sought was not received, he filed an appeal in January 2015, to which the Central Public Information Officer sent a response on January 16, 2015, informing that “no specific time has been given for the meeting of General Public with the Hon’ble Minister. However, as and when requests are received appointments are given subject to the convenience of the Hon’ble Minister”.
Thereafter, the RTI applicant filed a second appeal on April 14, 2015, with principal grievance that he had not received the information sought for within the specified time and therefore, prayed that certain action be taken against the concerned CPIO.
Presented with this appeal, the CIC went on to frame the questions whether the minister or his office is a ‘public authority’ under the RTI Act and whether a citizen has right to information sought, and whether the minister has corresponding obligation to give.
The questions were answered in the affirmative by the CIC which also passed a string of directions and recommendations.
While hearing the appeal filed by the Centre, the high court said, “This Court finds it difficult to understand as to how the questions as framed by the CIC arise in the appeal preferred by respondent no.2. The information as sought for by respondent no.2 was provided to him and there was no dispute that he was entitled to such information. The only grievance voiced by respondent no.2 was regarding the delay in providing him with the information as sought by him. Thus, the only prayer made by respondent no.2 before the CIC was that action be taken against CPIO and the First Appellate Authority under the provisions of the Act.”
“In these circumstances, there was no occasion for the CIC to enter upon the question as to whether a Minister is a public authority under Section 2(h) of the Act. Further, directions issued by the CIC are also wholly outside the scope of the matter before CIC… the impugned order dated March 12, 2016, cannot be sustained and is, accordingly, set aside,” Justice Bhakru concluded.