Guest post by Pallavi Mohan
Recently, two different High Courts dealt with information being sought about the Prime Minister of India and his dealings under the Right to Information Act 2005 (“RTI Act”). In a case before the Delhi High Court, the applicant asked for information about the functioning of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund. On the other hand, the Gujarat High Court is dealing with the Delhi Chief Minister’s plea to the Gujarat University for furnishing copies of the Prime Minister’s graduate degree. Let’s examine whether citizens can ask for such information under the RTI ACT.
Is the Prime Minister covered by the RTI Act?
Section 2(h) of the RTI Act defines “public authority” to include any authority established or constituted by or under the Constitution. By this definition, the Prime Minister of India is a “public authority”. Accordingly, a Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) has been appointed in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Any citizen can ask for information about the workings of the PMO from the CPIO in terms of Section 6 of the RTI Act.
Is the CPIO obliged to provide information about the working of the PM CARES Fund?
The PM CARES fund was created in March 2020 to provide assistance and relief in emergency or distress situations, similar to those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Fund has received substantial donations received over the years with almost 10,990 crores collected in FY 2020-21 and almost 9,131 crores collected in FY 2021-22.
In the past, in response to any information sought about the PM CARES fund, the PMO has taken the stand that the Fund is not a “public authority” in terms of the RTI Act. The PMO also denied information on the ground that providing such information would disproportionately divert the resources of the office in terms of Section 7(9) of the Act.
Recently, the Central Government has reiterated its stand before the Delhi High Court that the PM CARES Fund is not a “public authority” under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act. The argument is that the Fund wasn’t created under the Constitution or by a law of the Parliament or State Legislature or a notification of the appropriate government. Further, it was not intended to be nor was owned, controlled or financed by any government or instrumentality of the Government. The Government claimed that the Fund was a “charitable trust” in which a Board of Trustees (comprising holders of Public Office) was merely for administrative convenience and smooth succession to the Trusteeship. Accordingly, the information sought is not required to be provided.
This case is still pending before the Delhi High Court.
Are RTIs seeking information regarding the educational qualifications of the Prime Minister maintainable?
On a plea requesting copies of the educational degrees of the PM, the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) directed the Gujarat University to provide such copies. The order of the CIC was challenged in the Gujarat High Court. The Central Government has taken the stand that such information has nothing to do with the PM’s role as a public figure nor is the information of any public interest. Stating the privacy of the PM as a ground for not furnishing information, the Central Government has asked the Gujarat High Court to set aside the CIC’s order.
This case is still pending before the Gujarat High Court even though the judgement has been reserved by the Court.
To know more about the Right to Information, you can read our explainer here.