Courting injustice PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 18 December 2019 10:03
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Sarthak edit 


The Supreme Court, indeed, the judiciary at large, needs to ensure that its observations don’t frustrate justice. Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde should have known better than to raise the bogeyman of misuse of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. A bench comprising the CJI and Justices BR Gavai and Surya Kant was hearing a plea seeking a direction to the Centre and states to implement the court’s direction earlier this year to urgently appoint information commissioners, and Bobde observed “there have been innumerable cases of blackmail, extortion in its working.” He also said the RTI’s working has led to “a kind of paralysis and fear… people are afraid to take action.” To be sure, there have been cases of egregious misuse of the transparency law, but the fact is that RTI has done more good than harm, and the cases of blackmail and extortion remain the exception rather than the norm—former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi estimates these to be less than 10% of the total RTI appeals and complaints. And, there are multiple ways to curb misuse; for instance, in 2016, the central information commission had ordered that a public authority doesn’t have to respond to “repeated RTI applications with the intent to cause harassment”. Indeed, like the SC instituted a monetary penalty for frivolous litigation, information commissions could be vested with the power to impose a stiff monetary penalty to discourage misuse of the RTI Act. The CJI should have undoubtedly been more circumspect in his observations, given how even an observation by the apex court has the power to influence public perception of the landmark law. In 2011, in CBSE vs Aditya Bandopadhyay, the SC had observed that “The nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spend 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties”. Gandhi, in a back-of-the-envelope calculation, shows how under 4% of the public officials are likely to be utilising just over 3% of their time in responding to RTI queries, and yet the SC’s 2011 observation has found space in many judgments of the apex court since. A frontal attack on RTI by the Supreme Court—though the CJI had said that he wasn’t against RTI and merely for guidelines to protect against misuse—knocks off the law’s teeth. It wouldn’t take too long for the political class to use the SC’s observation as an excuse to tinker with the Act, and that would cause it to lose its bite.

In the matter of legal recourse that students of Jamia Millia Islamia University could seek—many have been brutalised by the police following their protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act—the CJI has said that the rioting must stop if the SC is to hear the matter. Such a stance signals that the SC has already made up its mind that the students are responsible for the rioting. This sets a dangerous precedent for justice delivery. Article 32 of the Constitution empowers an individual to seek legal remedy from the apex court in the case of violation of fundamental rights. Instead of upholding its tenets, the CJI’s statement in the students’ matter grates against this provision of the Constitution itself.


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