Bounden obligation of govt to keep citizens well informed about its actions, says SC

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New Delhi, Jan 5 (PTI) It is the “bounden obligation” of the government in a democratic set up to keep citizens well informed about its actions as disclosure of full information acts as an “enabler for meaningful participation”, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

Granting open access to information also secures the goal of transparency to which “all public institutions are wedded”, the apex court said.

It further said that unless complete and relevant information about government decision is placed in the public domain, the citizens would be ill-equipped to engage with the government in a meaningful manner.

Dealing with the issue of participatory democracy in India, it said that the Right to Information Act, 2005 has empowered citizens to obtain information from the government but it would be “absolutely untenable” to say that there is no duty on the government to be open.

The top court said this in its 2:1 majority verdict by which it paved way for the ambitious Central Vista Project, covering a 3-km stretch from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate in Lutyens' Delhi.

“In a democratic setup where the citizen has entrusted abundant governance to the government, it is bounden obligation of the government to keep the citizens well informed about its actions, as a prudent trustee would,” Justice A M Khanwilkar, writing the 432-page majority verdict for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, said.

“In a democracy, disclosure of full information is empowerment and acts as an enabler for meaningful participation. Granting open access to information also secures the goal of transparency to which all public institutions are wedded,” the majority verdict said.

It said that right from the days of struggle for freedom to the debates of Constituent Assembly and afterwards in independent India, “we have invariably embraced the representative model of democracy wherein political sovereignty vested in the people of India and legal sovereignty vested in the Constitution of India”.

The majority verdict said that over a period of time, there has been a constant endeavour to encourage wider public participation, wherever possible and required, keeping in view the efficiency of administration and rule of law.

“A holistic understanding of the dispensation envisaged under our Constitution would reveal that we are a representative democracy with strong elements of participatory democracy embedded in it. The element of participation, however, is regulated not only by statutes but also by the Constitution,” it said.

It said the principle of participatory democracy has two integral elements -- public participation in decision making and placing information regarding government actions in public domain.

“The citizens are completely free to advocate any notion along the government policy or the manner of making it in their free exercise of right to speech and expression, but enforcement of such notion cannot be fructified by resorting to judicial review,” it said.

“The idea of public involvement in administrative matters is based upon the stage and extent of representation prescribed by the legislature. No country with a sizeable population like ours can give a promise of direct participation to every individual in the decision-making process (of the government) in administrative matters unless the law so prescribes,” it said.

The top court said it must be borne in mind that such public participation is not to supplant the discretion of the government or to retard the development work.

“We are in an information age and political justice would be incomplete without informational justice which essentially requires the decision makers to consider the subjects of their decisions as rightful recipients of all information that may have an impact on their lives,” it said.

The verdict was delivered on a batch of petitions, which have questioned several aspects including the environmental clearance (EC) granted regarding the Central Vista project. The top court held that grant of EC and the notification for change in land use for construction of new parliament building under the project was valid.

The Central Vista revamp, announced in September, 2019 envisages a new triangular Parliament building, with a seating capacity for 900 to 1,200 MPs, that is to be constructed by August, 2022 when the country will be celebrating its 75th Independence Day. The common Central Secretariat is likely to be built by 2024 under the project.

Justice Sanjiv Khanna, the third judge on the bench, wrote a dissenting judgement on aspects relating to public participation in the decision-making process and on alleged failure on the part of the authorities in taking prior approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) for the project.

He, however, concurred with the majority verdict on the aspects of “notice inviting bid, award of consultancy and the order of the Urban Arts Commission, as a standalone and independent order”. PTI ABA SJK MNL SA