In the case of seeking information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act from the State Bank of India (SBI), transaction banking unit (TBU) at Mumbai, the central information commission (CIC) has sealed the lips of people! Instead of taking the public information officer (PIO) and the first appellate authority (FAA) to task for not furnishing information available on record, CIC has snubbed the applicant and asked him not to clog functioning of public authorities with his RTI applications.
The RTI applicant, commodore Lokesh Batra (retd), had filed an RTI application to the CPIO of SBI seeking (a) date-wise and denomination-wise - EBs (electoral bonds) ordered/ printed and taken on charge in the inventory of this PA, and the total value of these in INR; (b) total denomination-wise - EBs sold until 8 April 2020 and the total value of these in INR and; (c) the denomination-wise EBs held in the inventory of this public authority - after the completion of sale procedure of 13 phases, and the total value of these in INR.
SBI is the authorised bank for managing and administering the scheme of EBs, with the designated 29 issuing branches as well as with the department of economic affairs (DEA) of the ministry of finance.
While the CPIO provided information for (a) and (b), he denied information for (c) which pertained to EBs held in the inventory of SBI, after the completion of sale procedure of 13 phases, and the total value of these in Indian rupees which required collecting and collating information from 29 such branches.
The CPIO stated, “The authorised branches are selling the bonds to the individuals/ HUF/corporates/firms, etc directly and therefore the information sought is not centrally available with the bank and hence could not be provided. Such collection and collation may disproportionately divert the resources of the bank and hence denied under section 7(9) of the RTI Act.”
Just to recall, Section 7 (9) of the RTI Act states that, “An information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.’’
Cmde Batra contested this and, therefore, went in for second appeal.
During the second appeal hearing recently, CIC Neeraj Gupta literally went hammer and tongs on Cmde Batra, thus representing the prejudice that some information commissioners hold against citizens demanding their rightful information under this sunshine law.
Information on EBs comes under proactive disclosures as it pertains to hundreds of crores of rupees of public money. However, CIC Gupta defended the CPIO’s and the FAA’s stance when he observed that, “Even though he in his RTI application had stated that the matter is of vital importance and in public interest and should be in the public domain and; as much as a CPIO has a statutory responsibility of complying with the provisions of the RTI Act, it is also expected of the RTI applicants to not transgress the spirit of RTI Act by clogging the functioning of public authorities with such implausible RTI applications.”
Mr Gupta further stated, “The information sought by an applicant has to be balanced with the fact that the same act should not cause drainage of limited resources and the manpower of any authority, which will be unfair to them.’’
To firm up his observations, he cited a Supreme Court judgment of CBSE and others vs Aditya Bandopadhyay, which held that: “Indiscriminate and impractical demands or directions under RTI Act for disclosure of all and sundry information (unrelated to transparency and accountability in the functioning of public authorities and eradication of corruption) would be counterproductive as it will adversely affect the efficiency of the administration and result in the executive getting bogged down with the non-productive work of collecting and furnishing information.”
“The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquillity and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty. The nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties.”
Hence, CIC Gupta wrote in his order, “The threat of penalties under the RTI Act and the pressure of the authorities under the RTI Act should not lead to employees of public authorities prioritising 'information furnishing' at the cost of their normal and regular duties."
“The competent authorities under the RTI Act will have to maintain a proper balance so that while achieving transparency, the demand for information does not reach unmanageable proportions affecting other public interests, which include efficient operation of public authorities and government, preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information and optimum use of limited fiscal resources,” he added.
With these observations Mr Gupta disposed the appeal by upholding the CPIO’s and FAA’s decision.
Laments Cmde Batra, “It is to be noted that the information I requested is concerning expenditure of tax-payers’ money in crores of rupees and is of ‘huge public interest’. The information requested is in no way exempted under the RTI Act. In any case Section 7(9) of the RTI Act is not an exemption clause of the Act. This has been reiterated by CIC and High Courts in many cases.”
You may also want to read…