Central Information Commission (CIC): Saroj Punhani (Information Commissioner), harmonised the conflicting interests of the parties keeping with the letter and spirit of the Right to Information Act.
Following information was sought by the appellant:
- “Provide a copy of Thesis titled ‘Studies on some nitrogen fixing genes of Azotobacter vinelandi submitted/authored by Umesh Kumar Bageshwar which is catalogued in Dr Zakir Husain Library of Jamia Millia Islamia University under Access No. 130906.
- If the said Thesis is not available for circulation, provide the reason(s) for inaccessibility/restricted circulation of the said Thesis with a copy of instructions, if any restricting such circulation.
- lf the said Thesis circulation is restricted, provide the guidelines/policy that govern restricted access in Dr. Zakir Husain Library of Jamia Milia Islamia University with a copy of categories of items that can be placed in restricted access.”
CPIO submitted that the thesis sought for by the appellant pertains to the work of a third party who had categorically informed the University not to disclose the thesis without having an NDA signed with him by the requestor concerned.
Further, CPIO explained that the averred scholar has already got a US Patent and he intends to file for an Indian Patent too with respect to the research wok documented in the averred thesis and has also apprehended that a number of foreign companies are trying to gain unrestricted access to the said work for commercially exploiting it without his consent.
In view of the commercial viability of the said thesis and the protected interest of the scholar and his guide, the FAA invoked Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act in order to deny the information to the appellant.
Adding to the above, emphasis was laid on the point that the research scholar informed the University that if any request for access to the said thesis comes that should be facilitated through him.
Analysis, Law and Decision
Commission observed that the appellant primarily harped on the relevant University Ordinances to insist that the thesis of the averred research scholar ought to be disclosed in the public domain as once the scholar submits the thesis to the University, it ceases to be the property of the scholar and hence the consent or dissent of the said scholar is not consequential to the disclosure of the thesis in the public domain.
In Commission’s view, the arguments of the representative of the Appellant questioning the originality of the said thesis or challenging the Patent filing on the grounds that the idea invested in the thesis is no more ‘novel’ are more in the nature of self-serving arguments or at best calls for the intervention of the University administration to assess if any procedural or ethical lacunae is pertinent in the award of degree based on the averred thesis in the context of the serious allegations of the Appellant.
Coram stated that the appellant may note that merely because University Ordinance prescribes publication of the thesis does not take away the protection available to the disclosure of the same under the RTI Act if exemption of Sections 8 and 9 therein is applied and justified.
thesis publication of the research scholars cannot be reasonably even brought under any of the suo motu components of disclosure envisaged under Section 4 of the RTI Act, thereby reinforcing the proposition that the protection of Section 8 and 9 exemptions is very much available to the CPIO in the instant case.
Further, adverting to the peculiarity of the instant case in the context of the serious allegations of the Appellant and the admitted stance of the CPIO that the third party intimated that the thesis be withheld from public disclosure or publication, the Commission deemed it expedient to harmonise the conflicting interests of the parties concerned in keeping with the letter and spirit of the RTI Act.
In view of the above discussion, Commission directed CPIO to provide a copy of the relevant and available instructions received from the third party requesting for the complete confidentiality of the said thesis. or in the absence of said record, any other corresponding document as available should be provided to the Appellant.
CPIO was also directed to provide the relevant and available guidelines governing restricted access of thesis submitted by the scholars of the University to the Appellant, in case the same was not available, a categorical statement shall be stated in the CPIO’s reply.
Appellant was at liberty to approach the University for the purpose of facilitating access to the thesis subject to the signing of NDA in consultation with the concerned research scholar.
Note for UGC
Instant case impliedly suggests that despite relevant University Ordinances stipulating access permission to the submitted thesis of scholars, the prerogative lies with the University to withhold one such thesis in absolute confidentiality on the grounds of commercial viability and market competition. If that be the message that the Respondent University is conveying, it may be assessed if the said prerogative of the University is backed by any UGC Regulations and if the same is conducive to the interests of the research community at large.
Hence, in regard to the above, Vice-Chancellor, JMI shall consider placing in the public domain any exceptions to the rule of granting access to the submitted thesis of the scholars in order to dispel the apprehensions of other fellow research scholars or the general public at large and to avoid casting aspersions on the work of the scholars.
In view of the above discussion, appeal was disposed of. [Rajeev Kumar v. CPIO, Jamia Milia Islamia; 2021 SCC OnLine CIC 4459; decided on 12-04-2021]
Advocates before the Commission:
Appellant: Represented by Varun Sharma, Advocate through the intra-video conference.
Respondent: Dr Shakeb Ahmad Khan, Professor & CPIO present through intra- video conference.