MUMBAI: The Bombay High Court on Thursday directed the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to start an inquiry into how personal details of RTI applicants were made public on its website, and said not taking such breach seriously would trivialise citizens' right to information.
A bench of Justices Nitin Jamdar and Milind Jadhav disposed of a plea filed by RTI activist Saket Gokhale seeking direction for removal of personal information from the central ministry's website.
It directed the I&B Ministry to treat Gokhale's petition as a representation and ensure a suitable inquiry into how personal details of over 4,000 applicants, including Gokhale, were made public since 2016, and submit a report.
The bench said that the issue went beyond the breach of Gokhale's right to privacy and carried the risk of impacting future applicants.
"Informed citizenry and transparency of information are vital for the functioning of democracy," the bench said.
"Noticing that personal details of other applicants are put up in the public domain, some of those who want to seek information for the larger good may be deterred for the fear of being targeted. This could defeat the object of the Act," the judges said.
The bench asked the ministry to place the inquiry report before the court within three months.
It disposed of Gokhale's plea but granted him the liberty to approach the HC again if such an inquiry was not initiated by the ministry.
The HC also directed the ministry to pay Rs 25,000 to Gokhale as litigation expenses.
Gokhale had sought Rs 50 lakh as damages from the ministry.
The HC, however, left the issue of damages to the civil court.
The ministry's counsel, Rui Rodrigues, informed the bench the ministry had already initiated "disciplinary action" into the matter.
The bench, however, noted that the action had been initiated "on November 3, after the court reserved its order (on the plea.)"
"If such a large-scale breaches in the field of Right to Information are not taken seriously, the right itself will be trivialised," the bench said.
"Suitable action must be taken, and also seen to be taken, to underscore the importance of the Act of 2005," the judges said.
Gokhale, who was inundated with hate calls and messages after he filed a plea in the Allahabad HC in July, seeking a stay on the Ram Mandir 'bhoomi pujan' in Ayodhya in light of COVID-19, also sought in his plea that he be paid a compensation of Rs 50 lakh for the trauma he had to undergo after the ministry made his address and phone number public.
As per his plea, his details were displayed on the website in November 2019, and removed in September this year after he wrote a letter to the ministry.
Rodrigues, however, had told the HC on a previous hearing that though the Department of Personnel and Training had issued two communications in 2016 asking all government departments to refrain from displaying personal details of applicants who filed RTI queries, the I&B Ministry had not received them at the time it made Gokhale's details public.
At the time, the bench had pulled up the ministry and asked why no one had looked into the issue of disclosure of details of applicants, besides Gokhale's, in nearly 4,474 RTI applications, since 2016.