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RTI Act-2005: Public Interest And Larger Public Interest

While the Right to Information Act permits withholding certain data from disclosure, when public interest outweighs privacy, transparency prevails. For example, if a government body holds trade secrets provided confidentially by a third party, or communications within trusted relationships, exemption applies. However, should wider societal benefit from revelation surpass potential harm, the Public Information Officer may share.

Likewise, if an applicant requests industrial or intellectual property obtained non-commercially, non-disclosure remains the norm. But compelling need, such as pressing health or safety issues concerning many, could warrant setting aside privacy in favour of the greater good of the community, keeping the larger public interest in mind.

According to section 8(2) of the RTI Act, 2005, no matter what is stated in the Official Secrets Act 1923 and all other exemptions permitted under subsection (1), a public authority can grant access to information provided that promotion of public interest through dissemination of information takes precedence over non-disclosure. The burden rests on a public authority to show that it would have used all relevant factors in applying a public interest test to any cited exemption. It is not enough to list all negative factors that contradict with public interest.

It is also required that officials provide a complete enumeration, in support as well as against, of all applicable public interest factors examined on the test. They should also prove there is an expectation of the particular harm following the disclosure information.

This concept can be better understood through examples given below:
  • If a senior Tax Department officer investigates to improve tax procedures and finds instances of widespread tax evasion and collusion among officials, sharing this information with an individual citizen doesn't really serve a larger public interest. The report's purpose is more about showing the need for system reforms rather than taking action against those involved. So, disclosing the details to an individual doesn't contribute to the larger public good as the focus is on bringing positive changes to the system rather than penalizing specific wrongdoers.
  • If an Information Officer decides not to share a trader's trade secret with another person and the trader's business heavily relies on that secret, it's not considered a matter of larger public interest. The right to information for the other person doesn't outweigh the importance of keeping the trade secret confidential. Revealing the trade secret could harm the trading pattern and negatively affect the business community. So, in this case, protecting the trade secret is seen as more important than disclosing it for the sake of public interest.
  • When information is confidential or involves trust, like discussions between the Government and its legal advisor or between a trustee and their beneficiary, revealing these communications may not significantly benefit the broader public. There's a widely accepted legal principle that confidential information should stay confidential unless revealing it is crucial for taking necessary actions. So, in such cases, the focus is on keeping sensitive information private unless disclosure becomes essential for a specific follow-up action.
  • If someone asks for information about an individual's personal matters or a government officer's personal details, there's usually no public interest in either revealing or keeping it secret. The rule is that information should relate to the administration of the State to be provided. When it comes to the delicate matter of personal information, it's vital to strike a delicate balance. Under ordinary circumstances, maintaining confidentiality takes precedence. However, suppose there exists a compelling rationale linking someone's private data to their public endeavours. In that case, the scale tilts in favour of disclosure. The intricate balance between safeguarding personal privacy and serving the greater good comes into play.
In the context of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, "public interest" refers to the collective welfare and well-being of the general populace. It involves considerations that prioritize societal benefits over individual or private interests. Public interest is critical in the context of the RTI Act.

It assists in deciding on making available certain information that would have traditionally been classified to warrant privacy, especially when doing so serves the larger good. For example, divulging an information that is regarding national security, privacy or environment may have high implications for public interest hence revealing the truth.

In this regard, the expression "larger public interest" in the RTI law goes beyond general health and covers wider issues which affect many people in the country. This provision recognizes that there are instances where the disclosure of information, even if falling under exempt categories, serves a paramount societal purpose.

The Act allows authorities to disclose such information when it is deemed essential for the greater good, following a careful balancing act where the public interest in disclosure is weighed against potential harms. This dual framework in the RTI Act seeks to strike a delicate balance between the citizens' right to information and the imperative to safeguard certain information for the overall well-being of society.

  • Commentary on The Right to Information Act, 2005, N K Acharya, Asia Law House, Hyderabad

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