The free flow of information is must for a democratic society in personam because it helps in the growth of society. Information ensures transparency and accountability in governance and thus becomes a vibrant component of efficacious democracy. Further, the fundamental right to speech and expression under Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India can never be exercised until and unless the information regarding public matters is being circulated. This makes Right to Information Act, 2005 (‘the Act’) a very important legislation.
The Act explicitly authorizes the common man with an instrument to access the information from any public office: the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) or the State Public Information Officer (SPIO) of such public office is bound to provide the information sought. According to Section 7(1) of the Act, information sought via RTI application should be given within 30 days from the request. The exception to the 30 day rule, as laid down in the proviso of Section 7(1) of the Act, is when the information sought concerns the ‘life and liberty of a person’, in which case the information should be provided within 48 hours.
As the government machinery is not designed in a way that responds to all RTI applications within 48 hours, the question of ‘life and liberty of a person’ has to be carefully scrutinized. A broad interpretation of ‘life and liberty’ would result in a substantial diversion of manpower and resources towards replying to RTI applications which would be unjustified and a narrow interpretation of ‘life and liberty’ may either lead to death or grievous injury.
When can a person demand the information to be given within 48 hours?
The answers lies in the interpretation of the different phrases used in the statute. Only when the applicant satisfies the criteria of ‘imminent threat to the life and liberty’, the Act provides for disclosure of information which might be used for protection of life and liberty, or might be used against possible danger to life or liberty. If that element of concern is prima facie, visible, the Public Information Officer has to provide information within 48 hours.
- When the information relates to LIFE AND LIBERTY of a person
It is reasonable to expect that when the life or liberty of a person is at stake, the information which might save/help the person should be divulged as fast as it can be. But what are life and liberty? Life and liberty are two of the most important facets of our existence. Right to life means the right to lead meaningful, complete and dignified life. It is something more than surviving or animal existence. Liberty is the immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority. It has also been defined as freedom of choice, enjoyment of rights which belong to us as individuals, freedom from all restraints but such as are imposed by law etc.
However, the term ‘life or liberty of a person’ has not been explicitly defined in the Act. In this case, one can draw such definition from Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees that ‘no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law’. In a barrage of cases, over many years, the Supreme Court has interpreted and widened the scope of the right to life and liberty to include –
|Right to live with human dignity, free from exploitation||Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India,  3 SCC 161|
|Right to livelihood||Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, 1985 SCC (3) 545|
|Right to speedy trial||Hussainaira Khatoon v. State of Bihar,  3 SCR 169|
|The right to privacy||Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (retd.) v. Union of India, WP (C) 494 of 2012|
|The right against solitary confinement||Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration,  4 SCC 494|
|The right against bar fetters||Charles Sobraj v. Superintendent, Tihar Jail, 1979 SCR (1) 512|
|The right to legal aid||Madhav Hayawadanrao Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra, 1979 SCR (1) 192|
|The right against delayed execution||T.V. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1983 SC 361|
|The right against custodial violence||Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra,  2 SCC 96|
The above rights are non-inclusive interpretations of right to life and liberty under Article 21. When one wishes to file an RTI application under ‘life and liberty’ clause to get information within 48 hours, they can refer to the Constitution to understand what is covered within this term.
- When the information relates to life and liberty of ANY PERSON
Further, it is not necessary that the information sought should be of concern to the life or liberty of the applicant, it may relate to any person. For example in the case of Om Prakash Gandhi v. Tihar Jail, CIC/SA/A/2016/000884, the Appellant’s son sought to know the date of release of his father. After filing 36 RTI applications, the son finally received information of the Appellant’s remission of 83 days.
- When there is an IMMINENT THREAT to the life and liberty of a person
Unless and until an imminent danger or threat to life and liberty is made out, Section 7(1) cannot be invoked and only when disclosure of information would have an effect of saving the applicant from that danger, such information should be given in 48 hours.
When does the information not have to be given within 48 hours?
Processing a RTI application within 48 hours takes time, money and effort, all of which could have been diverted in doing the regular duties of an organisation. Therefore, Section 7 is an exception and not a rule. When the criteria laid down under the law are not met, information is not required to be divulged within 48 hours but can be given within 30 days, under the normal process.
In the case of Ashok Randhawa v. Lok Nayak Hospital, Govt. of NCT of Delhi, CIC/SG/C/2009/000453, information was sought regarding the child Shanno, D/o. Ayub Khan who breathed her last due to alleged punishment/beating given by the teacher of her school. The Appellant had sought the medical history of the child, cause of death, the status of the child when taken to casualty, treatment given to her in casualty to control seizure, and findings of C.T. scan within 48 hours, terming it as an issue of ‘life and liberty’. The Commission accepted the contention of the PIO that the ‘life and liberty’ (the child) in this case is dead, hence there was no imminent danger to life and liberty.
In a similar case of Pushpa & Anr. v. Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, CIC/PB/C/2008/00304, 00310, 00868 and 00866-7, the Respondent hospital submitted that if each and every case of a patient is taken as a case of life and liberty, then probably hospital authorities would only be attending to the RTI matters rather than attending to the patients. The Commission agreed with the view that every case of treatment cannot be treated as a case of ‘life and liberty’ and hence the information is exempt from disclosure under the Act. If the balance of public interest does not favor disclosure, the public authority is not bound to disclose the information.
How to file an RTI application under ‘life and liberty’ clause?
- While filing the RTI application under life and liberty clause, a clear specification should be made on the heading of the application in bold letters and the applicant has to specifically mention as to how the RTI application satisfies the life and liberty clause and why it should be replied within 48 hours.
- There should be a candid indication/reference to be made stating that as per proviso to Section 7(1) of the Act, the CPIO has an obligation to provide the information sought, within 48 hours.
- The letter should be dispatched either by hand or through any swift means.
- If the applicant does not receive any response within 3-4 days, he can file an appeal before the First Appellate Authority and send a copy to the CPIO. If no information is received, the applicant can approach the highest adjudicating authority i.e. Central Information Commission.
A humane touch is required
Section 7(1) of the Act is the beating heart of the Act. Applicants under Section 7(1) of the Act are prisoners seeking to know the date of release/apprehending delay in release; pensioners with little means who require information about delayed or unpaid pension, people seeking maintenance-related information of dependent wife/son/senior citizen/inmate of a juvenile home; etc. It is, therefore, crucial to recognise the urgency of the applicant and act with empathy.
The right to know is an ingrained element of right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution. As soon as a RTI application is received, there should be a mechanism at the entry stage to discover and identify whether the information sought satisfies Section 7(1) of the Act. The officers of the public authority from whom the information is sought have a higher legal and moral obligation to take up the matters concerning to life and liberty on a war footing and provide the information sought within 48 hours.
DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. The same cannot be construed as legal advic