NEW DELHI: Ministers in the Union and state cabinets are "public authorities" liable to answer public questions addressed to them under the Right to Information Act, the Central Information Commission has ruled.
This directive that ministers are answerable under the RTI Act will mean that people can directly send questions to a minister by filing an RTI application which will be answered by a public information officer in his office.
"The Commission strongly recommends the Centre and States to provide necessary support to each minister, including designating some officers, or appointing as Public Information Officers and First Appellate Authorities," Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu held in his order.
"The probable claim that Cabinet Minister does not have the necessary infrastructure to support the applicability of the RTI Act in as much as, the Minister is a singular person office...hence cannot be held as 'Public Authority' is not tenable," he held in a detailed order.
The Information Commissioner directed that 'oath of secrecy' be replaced with 'oath of transparency' so that the minister will respect the right to information of the citizen, which was passed by the Parliament and considered as fundamental right intrinsic in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, and be answerable/accountable to the citizens.
Acharyulu was adjudicating the case of Hemant Dhage of Ahmednagar who sought to know from the staff of the then Union Minister for Law and Justice the scheduled time for people to meet the Cabinet Minister and Minister of State. He was directed to seek time from the Minister himself.
Citing Ramayana, Acharyulu said, "It is borne by epics that Emperor Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram used to have a bell in front of his palace, and whoever rings it he could come out of his residence to meet the citizen and hear him, reflecting grievance redressal mechanism in Ram Rajya."
Acharyulu said it is not proper for the public authority (Ministry of Law and Justice) to direct the appellant to check with the minister himself and take the appointment. "It is pitiful that a citizen has to file a RTI request to know the timings and process of meeting their chosen minister, which should have been ordinarily provided on their own," he said, adding that such information should have been disclosed voluntarily under section 4(1)(b).
He said if there was no such facility of meeting, the minister's office should declare that 'there is no such facility'. On ministers being public authorities, Acharyulu said the expression "authority" in RTI Act would include all persons or bodies conferred with power to perform the functions entrusted to them under the Constitution and merely because ministers are individuals, the same would not render their offices any less authoritative than other constitutional functionaries.
"If lack of infrastructure is prescribed as the criteria for imposing transparency obligations, then none would be obliged to inform. That was never the intention of the RTI Act," the Information Commissioner held.
Quoting Article 75, 75, 75(2), 75(3), 163 and 164 of the Constitution besides Supreme Court order in PV Narasimha Rao vs State in which a Legislature is declared as a public servant, he said the expression "authority" as used in Section 2(h) of the RTI Act cannot be read as a term to exclude bodies or entities which are, essentially, performing functions in their individual capacity.
"The office of the Cabinet Minister is an office established under the Constitution of India; the incumbent appointed to that office discharges functions as provided under the Constitution. Indisputably, the appointee to that office is, by virtue the constitution, vested with the authority to discharge those functions," he said.
In his 12-page order, Acharyulu said minister is a key functionary being in charge of a portfolio, or group of departments in a ministry. "Instead of leaving it to the individual discretion, the law should mandate the transparency including the information about facilitating the 'meeting' with people," he said.
Directing the ministers in the Centre and state to put in place RTI processing machinery in their respective offices and compliance with suo-moto disclosure clauses of the RTI Act, he said the order should be sent to to every Chief Secretary of State and Union Territory where the Council of Ministers are constituted for compliance.
"The Commission strongly recommends to implement the recommendations of NCRWC (National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution), Second ARC (Administrative Reforms Commission) and replace the 'oath of secrecy' with 'oath of transparency' so that the Minister will respect the right to information of the citizen, which was passed by the Parliament and considered as fundamental right intrinsic in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution," he said.
Acharyulu said in this information age, the Right to Information Act has relegated the Official Secrets Act into irrelevance in many aspects except protecting security related secrets.
"It will be more appropriate to pledge for transparency rather than confining to oath of secrecy...The Right to Information Act has been deliberated and cleared by the Union Cabinet and passed by both the Houses of Parliament," he said.
Even if he takes oath of transparency, it will not oblige him to disclose various kinds of information listed in exemption clauses of the RTI Act, he said."In addition, Section 22 of RTI Act gives information law an overriding effect over the Official Secrets Act or any other law if that contradicts with RTI. Hence the Minister has to take an oath of transparency in place of obsolete 'oath of secrecy' or at least in addition to it," he said.