In a significant order with far-reaching consequences, the Madras High Court has brought aided private educational institutions under the ambit of the RTI (Right To Information Act). In the case pertaining to the Thiagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai, the Court held that it is indeed a “public authority” as defined in the RTI Act and hence could not deny information with regards to its functioning to those who seek it.
Given that Tamil Nadu has a number of such aided private institutions, not just in engineering but also in other areas, whose functioning have time and again been questioned by educationists, the order clearly provides an opportunity to usher in greater transparency.
Thiagarajar College of Engineering receives aid from the State Government for payment of salary to teaching and non-teaching staff.
In 2009, one T K Ravindranath made an application under the RTI Act seeking information on fee structure of the college for certain courses.
In reply, the college registrar maintained that the institution was not a “public authority” and hence would not fall under the purview of the Act. An appeal was preferred by Ravindranath with the Tamil Nadu Information Commission, which directed the college to provide the information.
The college, subsequently, filed the current writ petition challenging the order.
Senior counsel G Masilamani, appearing for the college, argued that the commission had pre-determined the status of the college on the basis of the letter head which declared it to be a government-aided college without giving sufficient chance for the institution to make its case. He said that the college was not a government body or an instrumentality of the State, which alone can be brought under the purview of the Act. Though the college received 37 per cent of the total expenditure as aid from the government, it cannot be deemed as substantial funding, he added.
Counsel for the respondents in turn contended that the college was indeed substantially funded by the government. Once aid is received from government, that alone is sufficient to hold that it is a public authority, the counsel submitted.
Passing orders, Justice S Manikumar observed that imparting education was no more an independent activity. Rather it supplements the principal work carried out by the State through the educational institutions established by it.
Quoting a number of judgements, including that of the Kerala High Court, the judge said the term “substantial funding” has not been defined in the RTI Act. It has to be a relative term and that substantial means “real or actual” as opposed to trivial.
The judge also held that in public interest, a person can seek information on how a grant-in-aid is spent. “If the college receives any concession from the Government or receives a grant or sanction for disbursement of fee concession to any under-privileged person and if the same is not fully paid or partly paid, then the aggrieved student or any person, with a pro bono interest can seek for information,” Justice Manikumar said.
As such, the judge held that the college could be brought under the ambit of the RTI Act and dismissed the petition.