In 2015, an applicant used the Right To Information Act to seek information about the result of all students who secured their Bachelor of Arts degrees in 1978 from Delhi University. Under normal circumstances, this would be considered a fairly innocuous demand for information that should be complied with easily. But this information concerned Prime Minister Narendra Modi – in an affidavit filed to the Election Commission prior to the 2014 general elections, Modi had stated that he had completed his BA from Delhi University in 1978. The University flatly refused to provide the information and the matter went into appeal.
The Central Information Commission directed Delhi University to allow inspection and provide the requisite information. This was challenged by the university in the Delhi High Court primarily on two grounds. One, the information is exempt from disclosure as it is personal information protected under Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act, and two, it is held in a fiduciary capacity under Section 8(1)(e).
Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act exempts from disclosure,
“[P]ersonal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the…Public Information Officer…or the appellate authority...is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information:…”
Section 8(1)(e) of the Act exempts,
“[I]nformation available to a person in his fiduciary relationship, unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;…”
The matter has been under consideration of the Delhi High Court since January 2017 with the Additional Solicitor General arguing for Delhi University.
Call for transparency
There are at least five reasons why this case is important, and the information sought should be revealed without fuss.
First, since both exemption clauses are subject to a public interest override, the implicit contention of Delhi University is that the disclosure of information related to results does not serve the larger public interest. This stand is inexplicable given the rampant fraud and corruption in the examination and selection systems in India.
The notorious Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, involving the selection of various categories of professionals, and the corruption scandal in the selection of teachers in Haryana, are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2016, the Supreme Court had to intervene in the examinations for entry into medical colleges and set up a committee headed by a retired Chief Justice of India to oversee the process. Even the judiciary has not remained immune from the rot in the examination system, with the results of the 2015 Delhi Judicial Services exams being fraught with charges of “corruption, favoritism and nepotism”.
The falsification of academic qualifications by elected representatives has also dominated the headlines. In November, 2016, the Supreme Court quashed the election of an MLA from Manipur for falsely declaring in his nomination papers that he had an MBA degree. The court held that the right to vote would be meaningless unless citizens were well-informed about the antecedents of candidates and that the election of a candidate could be set aside for making false declaration about educational qualifications.
Surely, in the current context, infusing greater transparency in various aspects of the examination and selection process, including public disclosure of results and marks of examinations, would go a long way towards addressing the malaise and serve great public interest.
Second, what makes the denial of information on the pretext of privacy particularly baffling is that, in line with international practice, Delhi University itself makes results public through a webcast of its convocation ceremony. Results of over 300 examinations are displayed on the university’s website giving names of students, their roll numbers, marks obtained and their father’s name.
The unrestricted public broadcast of graduation ceremonies shows that Delhi University deems it to be a public activity and certainly not one which would cause unwarranted breach of privacy. The claim of the university that this is “personal information” exempt under the Right To Information Act, in response to being ordered to disclose specific information related to the year 1978 under the Act, raises suspicions that the university is attempting to conceal information selectively, even though its own practice defies such secrecy.
Third, the term “fiduciary relationship” is widely understood to refer to a situation where confidential information is shared by a person voluntarily, in a relationship of trust, without any legal or binding obligation – the relationship between doctors and patients or lawyers and their clients.
In 2015, the Supreme Court held that information shared under an obligation cannot be considered to be covered under the purview of a fiduciary relationship. In the current matter, where the university is clearly obliged to declare results, it cannot be said that Delhi University holds information about results in a fiduciary capacity.
Fourth, the arguments put forth by the University are not merely flawed and duplicitous, they ignore critical provisions of the Right to Information law. Section 8(3) of the Act, provides for the lifting of most exemptions if the information sought pertains to matters that are over 20 years old. It says:
“Subject to the provisions of clauses (a), (c) and (i) of sub-section (1), any information relating to any occurrence, event or matter which has taken place, occurred or happened twenty years before the date on which any request is made under section 6 shall be provided to any person making a request under that section…”
Since in the current case the information sought is a permanent record and pertains to the year 1978, which is more than 20 years before the date on which the request for information was made, as per section 8(3), exemptions related to fiduciary relationship and causing unwarranted breach of privacy cannot be invoked.
A bad precedent
Finally, the decision of the Delhi High Court in the current case is likely to act as a precedent regarding access to all result related information under the Right to Information Act. It would be extremely unfortunate if results and degrees gradually became hidden from public view across institutions in the country on the basis of privacy or the claim of a fiduciary relationship. A restrictive interpretation by the court would hurt peoples’ right to information and would potentially cause havoc. Imagine, for instance, a scenario where parents wanting to verify the academic qualifications of the doctor operating on their child are not allowed access to relevant information.
To bolster public trust and address the malaise of corruption plaguing the examination and selection systems in India, the government should use this opportunity to put in place mechanisms to enhance transparency. Rather than litigating on the issue, the public declaration of results must be made mandatory to foster a culture of openness and enable public scrutiny.