The Supreme Court’s verdict declaring the office of the Chief Justice of India as a public authority and bringing it under the ambit of the Right to Information Act is a victory for the cause of transparency and accountability. This landmark ruling by a five-judge constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, must now spur efforts to force the political parties to subject themselves to the RTI Act. Despite a Central Information Commission’s ruling in 2013, parties of all hues have been refusing to come under the Act claiming that they are not public functionaries. This is a misleading argument because these parties depend on funds collected from the public and claim to be serving the interests of the public. By extending the provisions of the RTI Act to the office of the CJI, the apex court has set an example for all other public functionaries to follow and established the primacy of transparency in the functioning of public institutions. This does not, however, clash with the Right to Privacy, which was earlier declared by the court as a fundamental right. The SC has now rightly ruled that the Right to Privacy must be balanced with the need for transparency and the judicial independence should be kept in mind while deciding to give out information from the office of the CJI. And, it must be ensured that the RTI is not used as a tool of surveillance against the judges.
At a time when the executive appears reluctant to strengthen the institution of Information Commissioners overseeing the RTI appeals, the apex court’s judgment brings a sense of hope for those fighting for transparency and accountability. It has sent a clear message that transparency doesn’t undermine judicial independence. The independence of judiciary means it has to be independent from the executive but not from the common public. The people are entitled to know about the functioning of public authorities. Unfortunately, the functioning of the collegium system continues to be opaque. The apex court said that the names of judges selected by the collegium can be disclosed but not the reasons for their appointment. Such a prescription will not help the cause of transparency as people have the right to know not only the criteria but also the material on the basis of which the collegium decisions are made. There is a growing sense that the NDA government is deliberately diluting the powers of RTI commissioners and the State governments. The recent amendments to the RTI Act were seen as an affront to transparency and free flow of information. The spirit of the RTI law lies in replacing the prevailing culture of secrecy with a culture of transparency and accountability at all levels.