Srikrishna Committee’s Draft RTI Amendments Will Provide “Exit Gates” For Corrupt Officers: Information Commissioner Prof. Sridhar Acharyulu

Srikrishna Committee’s Draft RTI Amendments Will Provide “Exit Gates” For Corrupt Officers: Information Commissioner Prof. Sridhar Acharyulu

After raising his voice against the proposed amendments to the Right to Information Act, Information Commissioner Prof. Sridhar Acharyulu has now written to all Information Commissioners, appealing for opposition against the amendments to the Act as proposed by the Justice BN Srikrishna Committee of Experts Report on Data Protection.

Srikrishna Committee’s draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 proposes to replace Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act. Presently, the provision exempts from disclosure information “which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information”.

The draft Bill amends this provision to exempt disclosure of information “which relates to personal data which is likely to cause harm to a data principal, where such harm outweighs the public interest in accessing such information having due regard to the common good of promoting transparency and accountability in the functioning of the public authority”.

Further, “personal data” has been defined as “data about or relating to a natural person who is directly or indirectly identifiable, having regard to any characteristic, trait, attribute or any other feature of the identity of such natural person, or any combination of such features, or any combination of such features with any other information.”

Prof. Acharyulu asserts that the proposed amendment expands the scope for denial of information with several “ambiguous and wide expressions”, such as denial of information “relating to” a natural person. He further points out that while the report calls the “public interest” requirement for relaxing the exemption ambiguous, the alternative suggested by it does more harm and good.

Definition of “harm” will provide “exit gates” for corrupt officers

However, the most vehement opposition shown by him pertains to the definition of “harm”, which has been proposed to include- “Harm’ includes, (i) bodily or mental injury; (ii) loss, distortion or theft of identity; (iii) financial loss or loss of property, (iv) loss of reputation, or humiliation; (v) loss of employment; (vi) any discriminatory treatment; (vii) any subjection to blackmail or extortion; (viii) any denial or withdrawal of a service, benefit or good resulting from an evaluative decision about the data principal; (ix) any restriction placed or suffered directly or indirectly on speech, movement or any other action arising out of a fear of being observed or surveilled; or (x) any observation or surveillance that is not reasonably expected by the data principal.”

Prof. Acharyulu points out that the definition begins with the word “includes”, and hence, it could cover situations beyond those listed in the provision. He further notes that the provision adds “loss of reputation” as one of the grounds to deny information, highlighting the fact that the Bill omits use of the word “defamation”, which is subject to defences such as truth or justification, fair comment or privilege.

He points out several such problematic phrases, asserting that “with the ten clauses of ‘harm’ there will be ten exit gates to escape form RTI scrutiny by the people”.

No need to replace Section 8(1)(j)

Prof. Acharyulu therefore asserts that the replacement of Section 8(1)(j) is not warranted, writing, “There is absolutely no need to replace present privacy clause, as it has properly balanced the privacy rights of the public servants and the public interest in disclosure of information in connection with public activity.”

He also takes objection to the fact that the Srikrishna Committee did not consult the Central Information Commission before suggesting such changes and writes, “We need to emphasise that any proposal to amend provisions of the RTI Act shall not be taken up without wide-ranging consultation with public in general and ICs in particular”.