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Public authorities accessing information from private bodies are entitled to furnish the same under RTI Act: Delhi HC

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Delhi High Court has ruled that private companies which fall under the purview of government regulators cannot shirk their responsibilities under RTI Act, 2005. The government regulatory authorities have the responsibility to acquire and arrange any such information as requested from such agencies under Section 2(f) of RTI Act, 2005.

Facts of the case

Supreme Court Advocate Kabir Shankar Bose had requested information from Vodafone India regarding “surveillance, tracking or tapping of his mobile number by any agency.” The company had replied back that under the Right to Information Act, 2005 they are private fall hence are not required to comply with the provisions of the said Act. Frustrated with this approach of Vodafone India Advocate Bose approached CentralInformation Commission (CIC) for relief. CIC in its September 12, 2018 order directed TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) to collect and compile the said information and furnish it to Advocate Bose as early as possible.

TRAI aggrieved by the said order of CIC filed an appeal with the Delhi High Court. TRAI contended that primarily it is a regulatory authority and if any consumer had a complaint with their fall, such as Vodafone India, then it can address the issue. Since Advocate Bose’s request has already been denied by Vodafone India stating that it cannot be maintained under the RTI Act, 2005 TRAI cannot further pursue the issue. TRAI further claimed that the respondent, Advocate Kabir Shankar Bose should have “approached the authority provided under Telecom  Consumer  Complaint Redressal  Regulations,  2012 and the petitioner does not have the information sought by the respondents. Thus,  the impugned order  is  liable to  be set  aside.”

Court ruling

The case was heard by Single Judge Bench, Honourable Justice Suresh Kumar Kait who went through the arguments of both the appellant and respondent before giving his verdict. Justice Kait remarked that “since the respondent does not have a mechanism to get the redressal of the information sought, in my considered view,  the respondent has rightly approached the CIC” for relief and information. Regarding the authority of TRAI and its responsibilities Justice Kait expounded “under Section  12  of the  TRAI Act,  1997,  the petitioners has the power to call for any information, conduct investigations,  etc., where,  the authority considers it expedient so to do.  It cannot  be  said that  the petitioner  has no  power  to call  information  from the  private  body i.e.  Vodafone India.”

Placing reliance upon the judgment of Delhi High Court in  Poorna  Prajna  Public  School  Vs.  Central  Information Commission  &  Ors.  in  WP(C).  No.  7265/2018, Justice Kait reiterated that,

It  is  not  in  dispute  that  the  petitioner  has  sought  information  from  the Vodafone  Authority  which  was  denied  on  the  ground  that  it  is  a  private  body and  it  does  not  come  under  the  purview  of  RTI  Act,  2005,  thus,  the respondent/applicant  cannot  be  left  remediless  in  view  of  the  powers  of  the petitioner.

Information as defined in  Section  2  (f)  of the  RTI  Act includes  in  its ambit,  the  information relating  to any  private  body which  can  be assessed  by  public authority  under respondent has for  the  time being  inforce.  Therefore, if  a  public authority  has  a right and  is  entitled to  access  information from  a  private body,  under  any other  law, it  is „information‟  as  defined in  Section  2 (f)  of  the RTI  Act.  Thus, it  is obligation  on the  public  authority to  get  the information  from  the  private  body and furnish  the  same to  the applicant. Therefore,the  respondent  can seek  the  information from  the  service provider  under Regulations,  2012  and the  same  may be  furnished  to  therespondent.”

Impact of the judgment

The ambit of the RTI Act which was initially confined by the Supreme Court decision in Central  Board  of  Secondary  Education  and  Another Vs.  Aditya  Bandopadhyay  and  ors.  (2011)  8  SCC  497 whereby the Apex Court had upheld that “indiscriminate  and  impractical  demands  or  directions under  RTI  Act  for  disclosure  of  all  and  sundry  information would  be  counterproductive  as  it  will  adversely affect  the  efficiency  of  the  administration  and  result  in  the executive  getting  bogged  down  with  the  non-productive work  of  collecting  and  furnishing  information,” had been broadened by this decision.

It falls that the superior Court had made an observation in that particular case regarding the scope of RTI Act and the responsibility of the order directed but it is not necessary that the same should be applied in all RTI cases and public authorities should be given freehand to quote that decision and get scotfree from their responsibilities towards the citizens of this country. In a way, Delhi High Court has taken a bold step towards the creation of a more conducive, comprehensive and helpful environment for us citizens. It remains to be seen whether, if challenged, the Supreme Court would uphold its previously stated position in the 2011 case or rise the to meet the demands of justice and take up a more challenging and open approach as the top court is expected to be seen doing in the recent times.

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