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Delhi HC Directs Unique ID Authority of India to Provide Copies Of Grievance Redressal Agreements Under RTI

The direction came in response to petition filed by Prashant Reddy after his RTI request, which sought to know if the UIDAI had hired an external organisation to handle grievance redressal on its behalf and asked for copy of a contract with such entities, was denied.

The Delhi High Court has directed the  Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to provide under Right to Information (RTI) copies of all agreements between the UIDAI and external organisations for handling grievance redressal mechanism of the body, on October 5, 2023. Having said that, the HC has also stated that the UIDAI does not have to provide non-disclosure agreements and details of the parties involved can be redacted from the copies before making them available to an RTI applicant.

The court was dealing with the question of whether asking UIDAI to disclose copies of a contract will lead to the revelation of information that may harm “commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property and the competitive position of a third party”, which is protected under Section 8(1)d of the RTI Act. Justice Subramonium Prasad observed:

“The confidentiality is to be maintained by the agencies only for the purpose of ensuring that the details of the individuals are not revealed to a third party. The entire contract need not be kept a secret and there is nothing inappropriate in disclosing of the agreements more so when the recent trend is to encourage public participation in such ventures. Further, transparency forms the core of good governance, and promotes efficiency and effectiveness in the functioning of the government.”

What’s the case about?

The Court’s direction comes in response to a plea filed by petitioner Prashant Reddy against an order issued by the Central Information Commission (CIC) that denied him access to the copy of agreements between the UIDAI with external organizations for handling grievance redressal. The petitioner had filed an RTI seeking details regarding the UIDAI’s grievance redressal mechanism. Reddy sought to know if the UIDAI had hired an external organisation to handle grievance redressal on its behalf and asked for copy of a contract with such entities.

The UIDAI refused to provide the contract details citing Section 8(1)d of the RTI Act. In response to a second appeal filed by the petitioner, the CIC directed UIDAI to provide the name of the external organization handling the grievance redressal work for the unique ID authority. But, the CIC denied access to the copy of the agreement stating that the contract is subsisting and cannot be provided in view of Section 8(1)d.

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What’s the petitioner’s stand?

The petitioner has challenged the CIC order arguing that Section 23(2)(s) of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 or the Aadhaar Act, “provides for setting up facilitation centres and a grievance redressal mechanism for redressal of grievances of individuals, Registrars, enrolling agencies and other service providers”. He stated that such mechanisms are in the nature of “public-private partnership agreements”, which fall within the definition of “information” under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act. The petitioner is of the view that the copy of the agreement cannot be exempted as per Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act because “it does not include any commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party.”

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What did the UIDAI say?

Citing various clauses under the Aadhaar (Data Security) Regulations, 2016, the UIDAI argued that the authority, entities, and other consultants involved in enrolment and authentication of Aadhaar are required to specify an “information security policy” for prevention of fraud. According to the UIDAI, the contracts with an external agency provide for such confidentiality clauses and cannot be revealed.

The Court observed that the petitioner has not sought for the details of the individuals from the external organisation and stated that there was no reason to not disclose the contracts under RTI.

Why it matters:

The Delhi HC’s direction sets an important precedent in strengthening access to public information about the UIDAI under RTI, especially at a time when there is little information about the its grievance redressal processes in the public domain. In view of rising financial frauds related to Aadhaar-enabled Payment System or the AePS and issues related to fake Aadhaar cards being created in several parts of the country, it is essential to check if the UIDAI is providing for an effective mechanism to register grievances and is taking steps to address such complaints.

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Confidentiality clause, an easy way out for the UIDAI?

This is not the first instance when the UIDAI has denied information under RTI seeking exemption under Section 8(1)d. In June this year, MediaNama had filed an RTI with the UIDAI asking for a copy of its contract with the IIT-Bombay to develop a touchless biometric system for tackling Aadhaar frauds. Additionally, in the RTI application, we had clearly requested for a tender and a copy of “non-confidential” documents, detailing out the collaboration between UIDAI and IIT-Bombay for the project. However, the UIDAI did not provide answers to any of the questions, including the tender, citing blanket confidentiality under Section 8(1)d for all.

The Delhi HC, while directing the UIDAI to provide copies of the agreement, also stated that such contracts have been entered through the means of tenders issued by the authority and hence, it is imperative that “complete transparency” is maintained regarding the way such contracts are awarded. However, UIDAI’s current approach towards public information regarding security of data indicates a lack of transparency and accountability.

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Written By

Curious about the intersection of technology with education, caste and welfare rights. For story tips, please feel free to reach out at sarasvati@medianama.com

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