SBI Refuses To Disclose Standard Operating Procedure for Electoral Bonds Sale and Redemption under RTI
The State Bank of India (SBI) has refused to disclose a copy of the standard operating procedure (SOP) issued by it to its authorised branches for sale and redemption of electoral bonds. 
 
In reply to an RTI application, M Kanna Babu, the central public information officer (CPIO) and deputy general manager of SBI replied on 30 March 2024, stating, “Standard operating procedures (SOPs) of electoral bond scheme- 2018 issued to authorised branches from time to time are internal guidelines with regard to sale and redemption of electoral bonds (meant for internal circulation only), which is exempted under section 8(1)(d) of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.”
 
RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj had filed an application on 4 March 2024, seeking a copy of the SOP, as there was lack of clarity over the manner in which SBI recorded data on transactions through electoral bonds.
 
SBI’s reply has cited Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act to deny a copy of the SOP. Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act states- “information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.”
 
States Ms Bharadwaj, “The SBI has blandly invoked the exemption clause without demonstrating how the disclosure would harm the competitive position of a third party. This denial will be challenged in appeal.”
 
The SOP, stated Ms Bharadwaj, attains importance as it would reveal the official instructions governing the particulars of information that were to be stored, and the form and manner in which information was to be maintained by SBI on the sale and redemption of electoral bonds.
 
Amrita Johri, a member of the Satark Nagarik Sanghatan, stated that “Due to the SBI’s resistance to disclose the SOPs, people continue to remain in the dark about important aspects of the operation of the scheme. Doubts persist over whether, at variance with the assertions made in the press release of the finance ministry, the SBI was recording data in a manner which would enable tracking of electoral bonds.”
 
The denial to disseminate this vital information, which is of larger public interest, is audacious because:
  • Even after the Supreme Court has struck down the electoral bonds scheme as unconstitutional and has explicitly directed and ensured disclosure of all details of electoral bonds purchased and redeemed, SBI continues to deny important information about the operation of the electoral bonds scheme.
     
  • The standard operating procedure (SOP) was cited by SBI in its application dated 4 March 2024, when it sought additional time of four months to comply with the Supreme Court’s judgement to disclose the details of electoral bonds- “6. In order to protect the donors anonymity and to maintain confidentiality/secrecy, the applicant bank has laid down a detailed standard operating procedure (‘SOP’) for 29 authorised branches, spread all over India, with regard to sale and redemption of electoral bonds.”
     
  • Section 7.1.2 of the said SOP categorically provided: - “No details of bond purchaser including KYC and other details will be entered in CBS.” (core banking system)
     
  • The Supreme Court dismissed the application of the SBI for additional time. Ultimately, the SBI disclosed the name of purchasers, unique alphanumeric code of bonds purchased, date of purchase and denomination and the name of the recipient party, unique alphanumeric code of bonds encashed, date of encashment and denomination. This information has enabled the tracking and matching of donors to the parties which encashed the bonds.
 
States Ms Bharadwaj, “The disclosures revealed that the alphanumeric code was tagged with the purchase and redemption transaction of each bond. This raises serious questions regarding the manner in which SBI was maintaining information, as it is contrary to the claims made by the finance ministry.”
 
Also, regarding Poonam Agarwal’s revelation of the presence of a secret alphanumeric code on each bond visible under UV light, the finance ministry had stated, “This number is not noted by the SBI in any record associated with buyer or political party depositing a particular electoral bond. It is, thus, not linked to any party transaction when the Bank issues a bond to the buyer. As such the number is not being used or can be used to track the donation or the buyer. SBI does not share the serial number with anybody, including the government and users.” So, in effect, the story of the electoral bonds is yet not a completely transparent issue. 
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)
Comments
yerramr
2 weeks ago
When the instrument, Electoral Bonds have been made defunct by the Judgement of the Supreme Court, all matters relating to them can be shared including SOPs as these would have no bearing on any of the future interventions or transactions. No client harm exists and no operational issues surface. Why the SBI should not disclose is intriguing. Trust deficit in such banking only increases and this is not at all good for the biggest government-owned bank.
david.rasquinha
2 weeks ago
Using Section 8[1][d] is laughable. Information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, is exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(d) of RTI Act, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure. Here SBI is the only bank that was authorised to issue electoral bonds, there is no competitor. So what competitive position is being harmed? Nonsense.
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