17 Feb 2008

State Assembly not within the coverage of the Right to Information Act?

This news-item from rediff really makes me curious and prompts me to analyze the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005. It reports that the Legislative Assembly of U.P. has taken a notice served to it by the State RTI Commission, as a breach of its privilege and liable to punitive action. [click here for the full news-item] So I begin to analyze the provisions of the Act in order to examine the validity of the stand taken by the Assembly.

In order to analyze the correctness of the stand taken by the Assembly, it is necessary to understand the scheme of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (or simply the
RTI Act). [click here for the full text of the RTI Act] Under Section 4 of the Act, all 'public authorities' are required to maintain its records and publish the same on a timely basis. These terms such as the 'public authorities' and 'records' have been defined under the RTI Act itself, wherein under Section 2(h) a public authority is defined to include inter alia any authorities or body established 'by or under the Constitution'. Thus the State Legislative Assembly is without doubt a public authority within the meaning of the RTI Act and liable to maintain records.

Thereupon we move to Section 6 of the Act which entitles any person desirous of obtaining any information under the RTI Act to make a request to the relevant Officer (which in relation to a state legislative assembly is its speaker in terms of Section 2(e) of the Act) specifying the information sought by him and upon the payment of the relevant fees the same shall be made available to him (provided unless it is covered within the set exceptions like national security etc.). It has been specifically provided that no question shall be asked as to why the person seeking the information desires or intends to seek the information.

Now let us examine the issue in this context. The information sought by the applicant was "whether a legislator could obtain a government contract in his own name and whether such an act could make him liable to be disqualified from the membership of the assembly". Looks to me to be a simple question as regards the rules of procedure of the house and well within the power of the Speaker to decide (in case not already decided). However the issue is not as to what should have been the answer to this query but whether the Assembly can decide to ignore to answer the query, much less take this as a breach of privilege.

Section 7 of the Act prescribes the method for disposal of request. It provides that the answers to the queries and information sought have to be provided within the stipulated time. Is there any other alternative manner in which the request can be disposed? Well, Section 8 conceives of such situations wherein there may be an exemption from the disclosure of information. It lists ten situations in which information sought may not be disclosed. Of these grounds, none except under Section 8(1)(c) is seemly attracted; "information, the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature". However, even from a far stretch of imagination, it does not appear clear as to an information on the rules of the legislative assembly can cause a breach of legislative privilege when the rules are codified and published as a part and parcel of the legislative functioning.

In any case, at the most the option which the State Legislature has in response to a notice is that it can deny the request (the appeal to which would lie in terms of the provisions of the RTI Act to Central Information Commission). However it has no competence to treat the notice as a breach of its privilege for it would offend the text and spirit of a Parliamentary legislation and clearly, in a situation of constitutional de-alienation of powers it is the bounded duty of these constitutional institutions to act in harmony with each other and respect the decisions and instruments of other institutions made/done by them within their competence. [To take cue from the famous decision of the Supreme Court in In Re Article 143 of the Constitution of India (Keshav Singh Case), for more, read footnote 21 of this article and the text accompanying thereto]

Therefore, the decision taken by the Legislative Assembly on the notice of the State Information Commission, I can only dismiss off as an incorrect understanding and mis-appreciation of the spirit of information dissemination and the ensuing empowerment of the people, upon which the Right to Information Act, 2005 is based.

1 comment:

Raghav Sharma said...

Nothing is unexpected with Indian legislatures. Speakers proudly refuse to obey Supreme Court Orders and ignore the apex court's warnings (Manipur Speaker's case), Parliament says that we are above law (Expulsion of Members case- Raja Ram Pal)and now UP legislature repeats Keshav Singh after 42 years. truly, we live in a country with RULE OF LAW.