RTI activists have praised the Delhi high court’s ruling of an earlier order directing the Centre to regularly upload all laws and amendments, saying it will improve transparency and access to information for citizens.
In a landmark ruling that Right to Information activists believe will improve transparency, the Delhi high court has upheld an order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) directing the legislative department of the government to upload on its official website all laws enacted and amended by parliament.
In keeping with the CIC’s order, it has further directed the Centre to ensure that the official email addresses of its officials remain functional.
Through the order, the court also sought to clamp down on those government officials who resort to unnecessary judicial challenges. It said it was taking “judicial notice of the fact that in challenging the imposition of costs of Rs. 10,000, the Government of India would have spent more money in filing the present writ petition.” Consequently, it directed that the cost of Rs. 10,000 that the CIC was directed to pay should be recovered from the salaries of the officials who authorised the filing of the petition.
The CIC order
The complaint had first been filed by Vansh Sharad Gupta, a law student from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, in July 2012, when he wished to study the Indian Christian Marriage Act 1972 online.
When his email to the Legislative Department bounced back, Vansh approached the CIC stating that as a law student he needed to refer to several bare Acts but the website was not providing any assistance. He demanded that bare Acts be available in PDF format.
The order came over three years later in November 2015, when the CIC observed that “it is the minimum responsibility of the state to provide updated information about amendments, which will go a long way in helping people. The access to law is not just a requirement of Law students and law researchers, but a necessity of all citizens.” In the order, Information Commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu also directed the legislative department to pay Rs. 10,000 to the library of the National Law School of India University under Section 19(8)(b) of the RTI Act.
The CIC illustrated the necessity of informing people about changes in law through the following example: “Parliament, by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, has amended section 100 of Indian Penal Code, which provides a right of the private defence of the body even to the extent of causing death in case of acid attack. Many men and women are not even aware of the self-defence right – that they can even kill the assailant if the latter is attacking to kill, rape or throw acid, or cause grievous hurt.”
The CIC urged the department to “recognise the urgency and significance of the issue, expedite the process, allocate more funds to employ more personnel and complete the process of updating as soon as possible.”
In view of the complainant’s claim that most of his emails to the government had failed to go through, the CIC also directed the Centre to examine the functionality of the email accounts of officials.
Rather than taking the order in the right spirit, the Centre decided to challenge it in the Delhi high court, only to draw flak for not being serious about correcting its flaws.
The court categorically stated that it is “not an appellate Court of the CIC.” It reprimanded the Centre for its casual approach. “Technical and procedural arguments cannot be allowed to come in the way of substantial justice. The directions given by the CIC in the impugned order are not only fair and reasonable but also promote the concept of rule of law. It is unfortunate that the petitioner did not take the initiative on its own to upload the latest amended bare Acts,” it ruled.
The judgment has been commended by RTI activists.
Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said that though the student had little use for the information by the time the case was decided, the order remains significant. In his words: “The bureaucratic juggernaut in India reacts slowly or not at all. It is very welcome that the government has now been reminded of its duty to publish laws in their updated form and not piecemeal – the main enactment in one place and later amendments as separate documents.”
Nayak said that the ruling would also tackle the problem of the inaccessibility of rules and regulations made under a legislation, even while the texts of laws enacted by parliament are available on official websites.