The text below is from my brief titled “Who is a Public Authority under the Right to Information Act, 2005?” as published on the website of Accountability Initiative, published in September 2013. The brief can be accessed here.
The definition of ‘public authorities’ under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (“RTI Act”) has been an extremely contentious issue since the RTI came into force. However, in the wake of an order of the Central Information Commission (“CIC”) declaring political parties as public authorities under the RTI Act1, the issue has taken centre stage in public debates. The Central Government sought to undo the CIC decision by proposing to amend the definition of Public Authorities to exclude political parties. This amendment has now been referred to a Parliamentary standing committee. This development affords an important opportunity to examine the definition of public authorities, and controversies arising from its interpretation. The specific focus of this brief is on a sample of cases that were brought to the High Courts.
The RTI Act empowers citizens with the right to access information under the control of ‘public authorities’. Accordingly, RTI Act creates a legal framework to make good this right by defining public authorities, allowing citizens to ask public authorities for information, and imposing penalties on officials of public authorities for failing to disclose ‘information’ defined in Section 2(f). The RTI Act also mandates that “every public authority shall pro-actively disclose information pertaining to it, and maintain its documents and records to facilitate the right to information under the Act”.
Therefore the question of “who is a public authority?” is critical one because it sets the boundaries of the scope of the RTI Act specifically and the transparency regime in the country, more generally. In the last seven years, a wide variety of entities otherwise considered to be private entities (such as schools, colleges and sports associations) have been declared public authorities, and have had to comply with the requirements of the RTI Act. A perusal of judgments of High Courts and the CIC reveals a diverse and at times, conflicting jurisprudence regarding the ambit of ‘public authorities’ under the RTI Act.
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