The Central Information Commission on Tuesday slapped a token penalty of Re one an RTI applicant who was apparently acting as a front for a pesticide lobbying group seeking raw data of a JNU research, the findings of which went against the interests of the group.
Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu said the Commission cannot encourage the attempt to use the RTI to raise harassing questions, frightening the researchers, demoralising the research supervisors and prevent the JNU from its fearless pursuit of independent research.
The case relates to an “independent journalist” Archna Nair who had sought to know from the JNU the raw data of a research paper which had claimed that Indian vegetables have residues of 20 different pesticides which had been banned 20 to 30 years ago thereby implying their continuous illegal production, sale and use in India.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University provided some responses but did not give most of them citing its policy of Ph.D thesis under which it was not under obligation to disclose contents of Ph.D research for a period of three years after the award of degree to the scholar. The JNU also cited section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act which exempts information which is of commercial confidence in nature or is under copyright.
The Commission did not agree with some contentions of the JNU on these grounds and suggested to make necessary changes in consonance of the RTI Act.
However, it came down heavily on Nair saying appellant’s attempt to get clarifications for her “testing questions” cannot be answered as it is against the RTI Act. “The appellant’s multiple questions and litigations appear to have been guided by federation of pesticide manufacturers.
“Is there any public interest? Whether these questions are harassment to the author or any scholarly reflection or interest in research,” Acharyulu said.
Recording his “admonition against the unethical abuse of RTI” and disapproving the harassment caused to Professor and his research scholar, the Information Commissioner imposed a token penalty of Re one on Nair to be deposited to the University.
Acharyulu wondered if such questions under the “garb of RTI” will not demoralise the researchers and encourage abuse of the transparency law by commercially interested agents representing themselves as information seekers.
“The University professor, his scholar and research team, in fact are educating people with their research findings against overuse of pesticides. If this concept reaches people and properly understood farmers might move towards agriculture without harmful pesticides,” he said.
Nair had sought details which ranged from providing raw data, addresses of chemists who analysed samples, calibration of data, laboratory log maintained during the analysis, chromatograms among others.
“There is no provision to answer such grilling questions. “The intention behind this (RTI application) is not to secure access to information but frighten the research itself.
In fact, the Professor and scholar are nice enough to answer certain questions...which they are under no obligation as per RTI Act,” Acharyulu said. The Information Commissioner said Crop Care Federation of India is behind Nair. “Unfortunately, these profit mongering bodies have used RTI to SLAPP( a type of court petition) to threaten the research and frighten the scholars.
“This kind of misuse of RTI is increasing and they bring every such application to the level of second appeal or take beyond too. There is no surprise if this appellant (Nair) is used as conduit to file a writ petition challenging this order,” he said.
Acharyulu recorded the appreciation of the Commission for the independent research and academic honesty in responding to certain questions of applicant.
“They are right in denying certain information. However, the University shall keep the thesis in library and permit inspection and taking notes fromt it, however, cautioning against unethical plagiarism and unacknowledged cutting and pasting of their work,” he said.