As the Pune police conduct a search at six properties of absconding RTI activist Ravindra Barhate, one can't help but wonder at the plight of RTI applicants in the country.

Let alone protect the identity and information of RTI applicants, the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting instead decides to upload the personal details of 4,474 applicants on its official website. It had been long due and finally, on Thursday, Bombay High Court pulled up the Information & Broadcasting Ministry for its decision to upload the personal details of the applicants online.

Bombay High Court
Bombay High - Adam Jones

Serious breach of privacy

The Bombay High Court on hearing the writ petition by the transparency activist Saket Gokhale pulled up the I&B ministry for its decision to make public the details of those applying.

"Is anyone looking into this? That there was a lapse? It is not just the petitioner's case," asked the division bench comprising Justice Nitin Jamdar and Justice Milind Jadhav, recognising how this was a mass violation of the fundamental rights of so many.

The personal details of 4.474 applicants, applying under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, were on the website until recently. In his writ petition, Saket Gokhale mentioned having faced hate calls, hate mails and messages, a threat to life and mob fury.

The RTI that started it all

Right to Information
Right to InformationYouTube

In October last year, Gokhale filed a Right to Information application with the Ministry of Youth & Sports Affairs seeking details of the Bharat Ki Laxmi campaign. The ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs transferred his application to the I&B Ministry that later uploaded his details on its official website. As a result of which, the respondent's personal telephone number, address details, email ID started appearing on search engines, thereby making his personal information free for all on the internet.

The defence, the arguments

Centre's advocate Rui Rodrigues argued that while uploading Gokhale's details, it was complying with an October 2014 office memorandum for proactive disclosure of RTI applications, applicants and replies. He further submitted that it was only after receiving Gokhale's letter, the ministry learned of the October 2016 office memorandum that directed that personal details of applicants shall not be disclosed.

While Rodrigues argued that details were removed on August 1, 2020. Gokhale submitted that details were still on the website as of September 4, 2020.

Public reacts

Punishing the negligent might be a good way to set an example. While the I&B ministry may stand united in playing the matter down, there's no denying the breach of privacy of all the 4,474 applicants. "Onus for this cannot stop with the bureaucrats. The ministry must be held responsible."

Many held the current government responsible and also for trying to come down heavily on activists, whistleblowers and dissents. "Is this the new way of intimidating activists and RTI applicants?" questioned a user in a post. But how can I&B ministry be unaware of rules? questioned another post, echoing many sentiments. The court will now hear the matter on November 5.