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The Madras High Court on Monday ruled that the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University (TNDALU) is obligated to provide students answer sheets at nominal fees under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
In doing so, Justice SM Subramaniam highlighted the need for all public authorities to follow the RTI regime, given the noble intent underlying its introduction. As noted in his order,
“…why should any public authority shy for providing public informations to the information seekers. Undoubtedly, confidential files are protected under the provisions of the Act itself and therefore, the officials should not shy about providing all informations to the public domain, enabling the citizen to understand the manner in which the Public Institutions are administered…”
Rejecting TNDALU’s stance that it is allowed to provide answer sheets in line with its own regulations, rather than under the RTI Act, the Court held,
“…the Regulations formulated by the University cannot override the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005. If any such Guidelines, Rules or Regulations running counter to the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005, the spirit of the Right to Information Act alone would prevail and all these Regulations and the procedures adopted by the writ petitioner-Law University are to be kept aside.
Thus, the University is bound to follow the procedures contemplated under the Right to Information Act and they cannot deny the benefit of answer scripts to the information seeker under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, by stating that the procedures of the University would be followed.”
The High Court noted that the law in this regard has already been laid down in the the Supreme Court’s judgment in CBSE v. Aditya Bandopadhyay & ors, wherein it was found that an evaluated answer sheet constitutes “information” under the RTI Act. This ruling was also endorsed earlier this year in the case of Institute of Companies Secretaries of India (ICSI) v. Paras Jain. In view of the same, Justice Subramaniam observed,
“When the evaluated answer books are construed as an information, the same cannot be denied and therefore, the second respondent [a student of TNDALU] is entitled to get the evaluated answer scripts as per the application submitted by him under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005.”
The Court added that the following the Supreme Court’s ruling, an applicant has the option of applying for the answer sheet under the RTI Act, apart from applying for it under the University’s regulations. However, if the applicant chooses the RTI route, the University cannot deny the provision of answer scripts under the RTI.
“In the event of filing any such application under the Right to Information Act, 2005, the procedures contemplated under the Act alone must be followed and the Regulations of the writ petitioner-Law University cannot be followed. In the event of filing any application under the guidelines issued by the writ petitioner-Law University, then the second respondent is at liberty to follow the procedures contemplated under the University Regulations as well as the fees prescribed by the University.”
The ruling arose out of a petition filed by TNDALU challenging a State Information Commission ruling. In December 2018, the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission had ruled in favour of Pavan Kumar Gandhi, a student from TNDALU who had sought for his November 2017 examination answer scripts from the University under the RTI Act.
The University had initially directed him to send an application to its Controller of Examinations, following which he would have to pay Rs 500 for answer script copies for each subject. The student had successfully challenged this direction before the Information Commission.
The University, however, took the matter to the Madras High Court, arguing that the Rs 500 fee for obtaining the answer script had been prescribed on practical considerations. Apart from the Pavan Kumar, NGO Whistle for Public Protection (WHIP) had also contested the TNDALU’s case before the Madras High Court by filing an impleadment plea.
The Court eventually rejected TNDALU’s plea, while also observing that being a public institution, the University is bound to implement the provisions of the Right to Information Act, scrupulously in its letter and spirit.
Before parting with the plea, the Court also took note of Pavan Kumar’s submissions that there are several applications pending before TNDALU for the provision of answer scripts under the RTI. The Court, therefore also directed the University to dispose of these applications expeditiously and without causing undue delay.
Advocate VMG Ramakkannan appeared for TNDALU. The State Information Commission was represented by Advocate Niranjan Rajagopalan. Pavan Kumar Gandhi appeared as party in person. Advocate V Chethana appeared for WHIP.