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Firms using RTI to prop business

April 09, 2007 12:13 IST

Naveen Jindal, Congress MP and industrialist, who used the Right to Information Act to access railway ministry files, was perhaps the first high-profile instance of a company leveraging the legislation for business that came to the light. Jindal's lead has been picked up by others.

Data from the Central Information Commission, the apex body that hears complaints regarding denial of information under RTI, shows that corporate houses are increasingly using RTI to extract information from public authorities who are covered under its ambit.

While this has meant greater disclosure, the data also shows that a number of requests are being turned down. For instance, the finance ministry and its defence counterpart, the recipients of highest number of applications among government offices, turned down as many as 3,387 applications, nearly 14 per cent of the 24,436 requests made during 2005-06.

The rate of rejections was the highest at the ministry of defence (48 per cent), followed by the ministry of finance (37 per cent).

Given the way RTI works -- only an individual can file a request - it is impossible to know exactly how many of the rejected requests were from corporates or motivated by their concerns.

However, sources in the Central Information Commission, the apex body that hears complaints regarding denial of information, say the rejections in the Finance Ministry were mostly among applications seeking information 'of corporate interest'.

They attributed the high rate of rejections in the defence ministry to the sensitive nature of the ministry's operations. CIC records show the information sought from various ministries include the status of various clearances, tender evaluation procedures, fund allocation and utilization and policy directives among others.

For instance, Samsung India Electronic Ltd (whose representative filed the RTI request) had sought details related to export of cathode ray tubes display monitors from 2001-2004 and the actual calculation sheets of Duty Entitlement Pass Book rates available with Directorate General of Foreign Trade for the period.

Another applicant wanted to know the rationale behind the ministry of finance according exemption on excise duty to states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

He also sought all file notes and reports that led to the decision. Another request sought clarity on the policy that led to approval of foreign direct investment in the retail sector.

Other applications sought information on the decision making process that led to the environment impact assessment rules notified in 2005, the environmental clearance records relating to the Maheshwar Hydro Electric Project, Madhya Pradesh and that of Subansiri Lower Project, Arunachal Pradesh.

Says H L Attri, president, CAPF, an NGO that works to popularise the RTI Act, "As of now, the corporate world is making maximum use of the provisions. The advantage is that they can obtain authentic information on any decision taken by the government departments or public authorities".

According to the CIC, public authorities under the Ministry of Finance received almost 20 per cent of the total RTI requests of which 51.6 per cent were rejected.

"This disproportionately high ratio of rejection calls for introspection and training of the staff of public authorities under this ministry in disposing of the RTI requests. Perhaps there is a case for looking at their proactive disclosures under Section 4 of the Act." a CIC official said.

The data submitted by the ministries also revealed that the total number of requests rejected by some public authorities exceed the sum total of requests rejected under various exemption clauses.

"This implies that in the residual number of cases, some public authorities rejected the application without invoking any of the exemption clauses the RTI Act provides", official added.

Joe C Mathew in New Delhi