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The Right to Information Act has proven to be revolutionary, and rightly so. Ever since its inception, it has served as a crucial instrument against corruption and for citizen accountability by scripting government transparency into law.
There happens to be a common misconception that only government and government funded entities are under an obligation to release information in response to a request for information under the Right to Information Act.
What about private entities? They don’t exactly escape the purview of RTI. Here’s how.
What’s a Public Authority?
Lawyers love to play over hairline differences in words. As is customary, Section 2 of the Act is the lawyers’ playground: it defines the various phrases used throughout the RTI Act.
To be precise, clause (h) of Section 2 of the Act defines a public authority conspicuously:
Without going into legalese, it refers to:
- Any authority established by the Constitution (such as the Election Commission of India)
- Any authority established by the force of a law enacted by either the Union or any of the State Legislatures
- Any authority established by the force of a notification or order made by the government
- Any body that is owned, controlled or substantially financed by the government
- Any NGO directly or indirectly receiving funds or subsidies from the government
What is Information, and who can access it?
Clause (f) of the very same Section lays down a mind-bogglingly comprehensive definition of information, which for all practical purposes, includes almost all possible variations of how information may be stored.
A little down, clause (j) encompasses a very broad definition of a citizen’s so-called right to information.
Again, without going into legalese, it includes:
- The right to inspect work, documents and records
- The right to take notes, extracts or certified copies of the information
- The right to otherwise obtain information in in the form of physical media (such as disks, cassettes, etc.) and electronic form
To maintain a climate in which transparency is promoted by empowering individuals to access information, you first need to ensure that the true and complete information is maintained at all.
Section 4 of the Act therefore clearly spells out the liabilities of a public authority, that is to maintain its information in an optimized manner such that it is easily accessible for the purposes of the RTI Act.
In order to further facilitate analysis by individuals willing to use the RTI Act to access information, every authority is also required to publicly make known details like the types of records held by it, its power and functions, a directory of its Public Information Officers, etc.
These ancillary records are a true boon to the applicant, chiefly in trying to determine what type of information is held by a public authority, and also other pertinent matters.
Section 4 of the Act provides every citizen of India the right to access any information held by a public authority (with some minor exceptions). Such a request for information is to be filed to the respective Public Information Officer along with evidence of payment of the requisite RTI Fees (which is presently ₹ 10), and Section 5 of the Act imposes an obligation on public authorities to appoint such officers.
But, non-public authorities?
Picture a situation in which you want to access some information from a private entity. Having done your research, you realize that this entity isn’t a public authority by the definitions of the RTI Act. Ka-boom!
Does that forever close your doors on accessing information held by that private entity? Not exactly. There might be a way.
A closer look at the definition of “information”
Refer back to clause (f) of the favourite Section 2, the lawyers’ playground. Have a closer look:
(f) “information” means ………… and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force;
In other words, you, as a citizen of India, can access any information the Central or the respective State Government can access by the force of law!
Ka-boom once again! There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Picture this situation. You want to access some information from an NGO, which you’ve realized is not a public authority.
But, for an organisation to be recognised as an NGO, it needs to be registered under the Societies Registration Act or its equivalent state legislation. Every such law empowers the Registrar of Societies to call for certain classes of information by force of an order served upon any registered society.
Let’s dig deeper. For instance, Section 22 of the West Bengal Societies Registration Act (applicable to the state of West Bengal) empowers the Registrar of Societies to call on a society to furnish any information related to its affairs or the returns every society is required to file by law. The Registrar of Societies usually operates under the purview of a Department or Ministry of the State Government, which is a public authority!
You know what that means for you?
If you want to access information from a society registered under this Act (all of which need not be NGOs in the populist sense of the term; they might be schools, examination boards, etc.), you can file a request for information to respective Registrar of Societies (who is a public authority).
Such a request shall be valid only if the Registrar has the power to call for the information you have requested under the respective Act. If so, the Registrar will then serve a notice upon the society to return to him that information. Once he gets a reply from the society, he will forward it to you. Done!
Likewise, every state in India abides by a modified version of the Societies Registration Act or its own equivalent law. The power of the Registrar of Societies to call for information from a registered society remains unchanged, though the classes of information the Registrar, and therefore you, may access marginally differs from state to state.
I’m not a lawyer, why should you trust me?
Because I know what I’m speaking is true. There is precedent for this. Refer to Sarabjit Roy vs DERC, an appeal in which the Central Information Commission vindicated this logic.
What this means for you: some tips
There could be so many varied, perfectly legitimate and socially-useful reasons you might want to access information from a private entity.
In a nutshell, you want information from a private entity. There is most probably a way out.
Here are some tips to help you possibly get your information.
1. Trace the chain of accountability: Almost every society or company is registered under some law, and almost every such law confers upon the Registrar powers to call for certain classes of information from such registered entities. Every such Registrar functions under a government department, and is therefore a public authority. Find out which Act the private entity is registered under.
2. Analyse the powers of the Registrar: Find out whether the law empowers the Registrar to call for information (in most cases, it does).
If yes, figure you what classes of information the Registrar has the power to call for. You know you’re on the right track if the Registrar has the power to call for the class of information you’re looking for.
3. Figure out which public authority the Registrar falls under: The Registrar usually functions under a Department of the respective State Government, which is a public authority. Use Google baba to figure this out.
4. Locate the details of the Public Information Officer: Your RoI is to be filed with the respective Public Information Officer. Once you’ve located the website of the public authority, its website should have an RTI section, which, amongst other things, lists a directory of Public Information Officers (PIOs).
Pro Tip: Often, different PIOs are allocated to handle RoIs pertaining to different matters. If so, locate the details of the PIO tasked with handling information matters related to the registered entity you’re worried about.
5. File your RTI request: Refer to the respective RTI Rules of the state to find out what is the mode of payment and who the payment is to be made to. Pay the fees and attach evidence of payment with your request for information, which may be sent by post (I recommend Speed Post, because it is fast and has an all-India unique tracking number with proof of delivery) or by email to the mailing address or email address of the respective PIO.
6. Wait for your reply: You are entitled to a reply within 30 days of the receipt of your application. If you don’t, the RTI Act provides you numerous remedies, which are beyond the scope of this discussion.
The Right to Information Act is a wonderful, intensely powerful instrument if used properly. Knowledge of the same would be beneficial to all.
This is but a small effort on my part to clear the air regarding one of the most common misconceptions about the RTI Act: that it does not apply to private entities at all. As you’ve seen, that’s not entirely true.
Now, that raises the question of what would you do with this knowledge? Well, that’s a question only you can answer, not me.
Perhaps you’re fighting corruption, or demanding accountability from a local NGO, or curious about how the examination board corrected your answer scripts, or how the private company maintaining your local roads is using its funds….
This knowledge is an instrument of citizen power, which places at your disposal a treasure trove of information. You’re surely intelligent enough to use it for a just purpose.
Just remember, power + character = good citizen.
To your success,