Say won't part with information even to Cabinet or Parliament
Even as the UPA Government projects the enactment of the Right To Information as its achievement, Officers of the Tariff Commission on Wednesday claimed at the CIC hearing that they would not give its confidential reports even to the Cabinet or Parliament.
While directing the Health Ministry to provide information on the procurement price of condoms, Information Commissioner Padma Balasubramaniam denied access to the Tariff Commission's report on the Realistic Cost of Condoms. She went along with the Government's claim, without verifying as to how the Tariff Commission gave itself the authority to keep all its work a secret.
After 18 months of follow-up, intimidation by Government officials and a High Court directive to CIC to conduct a hearing, all that the Government offered was piecemeal information. The public would never be able to know if there was indeed corruption in the procurement of contraceptives and whether a manufacturers' cartel had overcharged the Health Ministry.
The Health Ministry passed the buck to the Tariff Commission, which had marked the report confidential. The Tariff Commission, represented by its director Y Goel, showed an internal memo to the CIC and argued that the report would harm the commercial interests of the manufacturers. While collecting information from the manufacturers, they had promised confidentiality regarding the cost price. "All our reports are confidential. Otherwise we will not be able to get correct information from the companies," Goel argued.
Getting a patient hearing from the Information Commissioner, the director also argued that the report was intellectual property of the Tariff Commission. Anyone with basic knowledge of intellectual property will tell you that the provision cannot be invoked unless there is commercial value attached to the knowledge. It was wrongly invoked in this case to keep information under wraps, not protect commercial value of the report. Ironically, the argument was not challenged by the CIC.
The Pioneer pleaded that under Section 10 of the RTI Act the part of the report that was likely to hurt the commercial interests of the manufacturers be expunged and the rest of the report could be released. The clause states that "where a request to information is rejected on the ground that it relates to information which is exempt from disclosure, then access may be provided to that part of the record which does not contain any information which is exempt from disclosure." The Act provides that sensitive information be severed from the whole.
But the plea was not entertained. When the Tariff Commission was grilled as to what it would do if the Cabinet asked for the report, Goel said, "We will not give it to them. In fact, we do not even give information to Parliament." While concluding the hearing, Balasubramanium suggested that if she had known this before she would not have bothered to call the hearing.
The Pioneer correspondent's query as to what authority did the Tariff Commission have to make this assertion was overlooked by the CIC.
The story so far
Oct 2005: After allegations surfaced that condom manufacturers in connivance with Health Ministry officials had overcharged the Government for contraceptives, Tariff Commission submitted report on what should be the realistic cost of condoms Jan 2006:The Pioneer submits RTI application to avail copy of the report Feb 2006: Health Ministry denies information. Says it will harm commercial interest of manufacturers; Tariff Commission has classified report confidential Feb 2006:The Pioneer appeals to CIC against Health Ministry's decision. CIC closes the case without giving any reason May 2006:The Pioneer seeks intervention of CIC chief Wajahat Habibullah. Appeal registered. CIC again loses copy of the complaint. Second appeal filed Aug 2006:The Pioneer, in response to CIC notice, argues that vast sums of public money go into buying condoms. Public interest here overrides commercial interest of condom manufacturers Aug 2006: Information Commissioner Padma Balasubramanium passes an order upholding Health Ministry's contention and denies the report Feb 2007:The Pioneer petitions High Court against the decision May 2007: High Court asks CIC to hear the case again The Pioneer > Home
This case will have to be appealed to High Court again to make the CIC understand and implement the law. The CIC is wrong on interpretation of the meaning of "commercial interests" and CIC has to understand that to declare a document "confidential" various requirements have to be met.
The US courts have scrutinized the meaning of commercial interests under Freedom of Information Act, thoroughly. RTI language is identical to FOIA language for this exemption. RTI is more disclosure oriented then FOIA, since RTI says that even information of commercial nature may be disclosed if it serves a public interest. Details of US court decisions are available on web sites.
To call a document "confidential" in US, the government agency has to go through a series of steps, outlined in a Presidential Order. Only certain officials are designated to label a document "confidential, secret or top-secret." Even then FOIA allows judges to view the document to see that it was classified properly, not to hide corruption or incompetence. The CIC has to inspect the documents to see that they were not labelled confidential just to hide corruption.
Just wondering why copying and pasting EXACT news report does not violate copyright? I would think that EXACT copy would violate copyright and paraphrasing it in different words would not violate copyright