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University Bound To Provide Answer Sheets Under RTI: Madras HC

In a remarkable decision, the Madras High Court very recently on October 14, 2019 in The Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University, Represented by its Registrar vs 1. The Tamil Nadu State Information Commission Represented by its Assistant Registrar 2. Pavan Kumar Gandhi 3. Paras Jain 4. Kumar Shanu (R-3 & R-4 impleaded via order of Court dated 14.10.2019 made in WMP No. 29201 of 2019) in WP No. 16108 of 2019 and WMP No. 15866 of 2019 has very rightly and commendably held that evaluated answer sheets are ‘information’ under the Right to Information Act, 2005 and Universities are bound to provide them to the Respondent-students. This latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment was pronounced in response to a writ petition filed under Article 226 of the Constitution of India praying for issuance of a Writ of Certiorari, calling for the records in proceedings No. SA4393/D/2018 dated 17.12.2018 passed by the first respondent and quash the same. This historic judgment was delivered by Justice SM Subramaniam while disposing of a petition filed by the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University (Petitioner), through Advocate VMG Ramakkannan, lambasting the order of the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission, whereby the Petitioner that is ‘The Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University’ was directed to supply the copies of answer-sheets sought by the Respondent-students under the RTI Act. 

To start with, the ball is set rolling in para 1 of this noteworthy judgment wherein it is observed first and foremost that, “The writ on hand is to quash the order dated 17.12.2018 issued by the first respondent in proceedings No. SA4393/D/2018 dated 17.12.2018.” It is then pointed out in para 2 that, “The writ petitioner is the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University.”

What we then see being pointed out in para 3 is this: “The learned counsel appearing on behalf of the writ petitioner-University states that the second respondent is the student of the writ petitioner-Law University. The second respondent filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005, to furnish copies of the answer scripts, which were not furnished and consequently, the second respondent approached the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission, who in turn passed an order on 17.12.2018, directing the writ petitioner-Law University to supply the copies of the answer scripts sought for by the second respondent under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005.”

While presenting the version of Law University, it is then pointed out in para 4 that, “Challenging the said order, the learned counsel for the writ petitioner states that the writ petitioner-Law University has got its own Rules and Regulations for the purpose of furnishing copies of the answer scripts. The writ petitioner-Law University has to follow the procedures and under these circumstances, they have rejected the claim of the second respondent for furnishing copies of the answer scripts sought for by him.”

While continuing in the same vein, it is then stated in para 5 that, “The learned counsel for the writ petitioner-Law University states that the writ petitioner-Law University is ready and willing to furnish copies of answer scripts on payment of charges prescribed under the Rules and Regulations of the Law University. The said reply was communicated to the second respondent also. Under these circumstances, it is contended that the writ petitioner-Law University has not refused to provide copies of the answer scripts, contrarily, they have insisted the second respondent that the procedures contemplated under the University Regulations are to be followed. Thus, the writ petitioner-Law University has not rejected the claim of the second respondent, but they have insisted him to follow the procedures prescribed under the Rules and Regulations of the University.”

On the contrary, para 6 then states that, “The second respondent, appearing in person, opposed the contentions of the learned counsel for the writ petitioner-Law University, by stating that he submitted an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005. However, the writ petitioner-Law University by reply dated 23.01.2018 states that, the University Regulations are to be followed and the answer scripts will not be supplied under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005. However, the fact remains that the writ petitioner-Law University expressed their willingness to supply the answer scripts in the event of following the procedures contemplated under the Rules and Regulations of the University.”

Furthermore, it is then mentioned in para 7 that, “The first respondent Tamil Nadu State Information Commission, citing the judgment of the Supreme Court, passed an order directing the writ petitioner-Law University to furnish the copy of the answer scripts to the second respondent under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005.”

To be sure, it is then conceded in para 8 that, “As far as the application submitted by the second respondent under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 to the writ petitioner-Law University is concerned, it is not in dispute that the Right to Information Act is applicable. Accordingly, the second respondent is entitled to get informations under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005, unless such informations are prohibited specifically under Section 8 of the Right to Information Act, 2005.” 

To put things in perspective, it is then noted in para 9 that, “Shri Paras Jain and Shri Kumar Shanu filed an impleading petition in WMP No. 29201 of 2019 and Ms. V. Chethana, learned counsel appearing on behalf of the impleading petitioners, solicited the attention of this Court that the Supreme Court has settled the issue in respect of furnishing of the answer scripts to the students, who all are submitting their applications under the Right to Information Act, 2005.”

While citing the relevant case law, it is then illustrated in para 10 that, “In the Case of CENTRAL BOARD OF SECONDARY EDUCATION (CBSE) AND ANOTHER Vs. ADITYA BANDOPADHYAY & OTHERS [(2011) 8 SCC 497], the Apex Court held that “if CBSE was required to re-evaluate the answer-books or grant inspection of answer-books or grant certified copies thereof, it would interfere with its effective and efficient functioning, and will also require huge additional staff and infrastructure. It was submitted that the entire examination system and evaluation by CBSE is done in a scientific and systemic manner designed to ensure and safeguard the high academic standards and at each level utmost care was taken to achieve the object of excellence, keeping in view the interests of the students”.”

More pertinently, it is then rightly underscored in para 11 that, “In the judgment, cited supra, the Hon’ble Supreme Court further observed in paragraph-23 that “when a candidate participates in an examination and writes his answers in an answer book and submits it to the examining body for evaluation and declaration of the result, the answer-book is a document or record. When the answer-book is evaluated by an examiner appointed by the examining body, the evaluated answer-book becomes a record containing the ‘opinion’ of the examiner. Therefore, the evaluated answer-book is also an ‘information’ under the Right to Information Act”.”

What’s more, para 12 then further narrates that, “The Apex Court of India in an unequivocal terms held that “evaluated answer is an information under the Right to Information Act”. Thus, there is no option for the writ petitioner-Law University but to supply the evaluated answer scripts to the second respondent under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005. When the evaluated answer books are construed as an information, the same cannot be denied and therefore, the second respondent 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.”

Be it noted, para 13 then holds that, “It is relevant to extract paragraphs 26 and 27 of the judgment, cited supra, which are extracted as under:-

“26. The examining bodies (Universities, Examination Boards, CBSE, etc.) are neither intelligence nor security organisations and therefore the exemption under Section 24 will not apply to them. The disclosure of information with reference to answer books does not also involve infringement of any copyright and therefore Section 9 will not apply. Resultantly, unless the examining bodies are able to demonstrate that the evaluated answer books fall under any of the categories of exempted “information” enumerated in clauses (a) to (j) of sub-section (1) of Section 8, they will be bound to provide access to the information and any applicant can either inspect the document/record, take notes, extracts or obtain certified copies thereof.

27. The examining bodies contend that the evaluated answer books are exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act, as they are “information” held in its fiduciary relationship. They fairly conceded that evaluated answer books will not fall under any other exemptions in sub-section (1) of Section 8. Every examinee will have the right to access, his evaluated answer books, by either inspecting them or take certified copies thereof, unless the evaluated answer books are found to be exempted under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act.”” 

While citing a recent and relevant case law, it is then elucidated in para 14 that, “In the case of Institute of Companies Secretaries of India (ICSI) vs. Paras Jain [decided on 11.04.2019 in Civil appeal No. 5665 of 2014] (the impleaded respondent in the present writ petition), the Apex Court held that “the avenue for seeking certified copies as well as inspection is provided both in the Right to Information Act as well as the statutory guidelines of the appellant”.” 

As it turned out, para 24 then enumerates that, “Under these circumstances, the writ petitioner-Law University is bound to follow the Act as well as the Rules scrupulously, while dealing with the applications submitted under the provisions of the Right to Information Act and therefore, there is no infirmity, as such, in respect of the reasonings furnished in the order impugned by the first respondent. The order of the first respondent is in consonance with the spirit of the Act and therefore, the writ petitioner-Law University is bound to follow the procedures contemplated under the Act and the Rules at the time of dealing with the applications, if any, submitted under the Right to Information Act, by the information seekers.” 

Needless to say, it is then made absolutely clear in para 25 that, “The very object of the Right to Information Act, 2005, stipulates that democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed. Undoubtedly, the purpose and object of the Act, is noble and to achieve the constitutional philosophy and goals. The principles of equality can be achieved only if there is a transparency in public administration. The accountability in the public administration is of paramount importance, as ‘We, the People of our Great Nation’ are sandwiched between corrupt and non-corrupt. Identification of corrupt and non-corrupt may be difficult in the event of non-transparency in public administration.”

It goes without saying what is stated clearly, correctly and convincingly in para 26 that, “Irregularities in public administration cannot be sorted out if there is no transparency in the public administration. Thus, the Right to Information Act, is a Noble Legislation, which ensures transparency in the public administration, which would be undoubtedly helpful to the citizen of our Great Nation to make the public servants accountable and responsible regarding the administrative actions.”

As a corollary, it is then further very rightly held in para 27 that, “In this context, this Court would like to emphasise that the Law University, being a Public Institution, is bound to implement the provisions of the Right to Information Act, scrupulously in its letter and spirit. The moot question is that 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.”

It cannot be lost on us that it is then very rightly harped upon in para 28 that, “After all, ‘We, The People of India’ solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Therefore, ‘We, The People of India’ enacted the Right to Information Act, through its Parliament, then the instrumentality of the State or the Public Institutions cannot take a stand that they will adopt their own procedure for furnishing the informations under the Right to Information Act. When the Parliament enacted the law in order to develop transparency in public administration, undoubtedly, the other procedures or regulations formulated by any other institutions, cannot prevail over the Act of Parliament and those Rules and Regulations of such individual institutions can never override the purpose and object of the Right to Information Act, 2005.”

Of course, it is then pointed out in para 29 that, “The second respondent, in person, articulated his points by stating that large number of such applications are kept pending, by citing the pendency of the present writ petition. Further, the second respondent states that all such information seekers are waiting for the answer scripts and other informations sought for in their respective applications.”

To put it succinctly, it is then envisaged in para 30 that, “Under these circumstances, the writ petitioner-Law University has not established any acceptable ground for the purpose of assailing the order impugned. Per contra, the order impugned is well reasoned and candid. Thus, the second respondent is entitled to receive the answer scripts as sought for in his application under the Right to Information Act, 2005. All such similar applications are also to be disposed of by the writ petitioner-Law University, as expeditiously as possible, without causing any undue delay, as the students would be anxious in seeing their answer scripts and on account of the pendency of the writ petition, their applications are kept pending.”

Coming to the concluding paras, para 31 holds that, “This being the factum, the writ petitioner-Law University is directed to dispose of all the RTI applications filed under the Right to Information Act, 2005, as expeditiously as possible, by following the procedures contemplated under the RTI Act as well as the Rules in force. In respect of the application submitted by the second respondent, the answer script had already been furnished to him and no further directions are required in this regard.” Lastly, it is then held in the last para 32 that, “Accordingly, the writ petition stands dismissed. However, there shall be no order as to costs. Consequently, connected miscellaneous petition is also dismissed.”

In conclusion, it is very rightly held by the Madras High Court in this notable case that an evaluated answer sheet is an information as defined under the RTI Act and so a university cannot deny access to students. This is more so true because the information sought by students does not fall under the exempted category for national security or copyright infringement. We thus see that Justice SM Subramaniam of Madras High Court dismisses a plea made by the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University challenging the Tamil Nadu State Information Commissioner’s order allowing students to get copies of answer scripts through RTI. Justice Subramaniam directed the University to supply the answer scripts to students who wanted them and rejected the University’s contention that it is governed by its own rules and maintained that the RTI Act overrides the University’s statute. Very rightly so! This is a commendable judgment which will certainly address the genuine grievances of students and make them see for themselves whether justice has been done with them or not actually in evaluating the answer scripts!

Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,

s/o Col BPS Sirohi,

A 82, Defence Enclave,

Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,

Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.