In August 2016, Mumbai-based Cambata Aviation Pvt Ltd, one of the oldest ground services-provider at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, closed its operation without paying over 2,000 of its employees, their salaries and provident fund, which amounted to over Rs100 crore. This led to the state government filing a criminal complaint against the company.
Aggrieved by non-receipt of his salary, an employee, Subramanian Ansari sought information from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) in the office of deputy commissioner of income-tax (I-T) for certified copy of Cambata Aviation’s balance sheet and profit and loss account for 10 years from 1 April 2008 to 31 March 2017. He also asked for copies of the I-T department’s correspondence regarding closure of the company.
The CPIO, however, denied disclosure of information under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act 2005. When Mr Ansari filed his first appeal, the first appellate authority (FAA) directed the CPIO to contact the third party, that is, Cambata Aviation and request it to make a submission in writing regarding whether the information sought should be disclosed. Predictably, the company objected to the disclosure of information.
Mr Ansari’s second appeal to the information commission came up for hearing, one and a half years later, on 18 April 2019. The CIC ordered the I-T office to promptly disclose all information to Mr Ansari, as it found the CPIO wrongfully taking shelter under Section 8 of the RTI Act.
The order issued by CIC Bimal Jhulka says, “Keeping in view the facts of the case and the submissions made by both the parties, it is the considered view of the Commission that it cannot be a mute spectator to the pitiable conditions being faced by the employees of the aviation company, which is seeking shelter under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act. Therefore, considering the sensitivities of the matter as also in the light of the criticality of sustenance issues faced by its employees, the Commission instructs the respondent (the income tax department) to disclose point wise information as held and available with them to the appellant (Ansari)…in the larger public interest.’’
As per the argument put forth by RTI applicant Mr Ansari during the CIC hearing, “Cambata Aviation had deprived salary and wages to more than 2,100 employees since March 2016 on the pretext of bad condition of finance and loss in the business resulting in extreme financial hardships to him and hundreds of other employees.”
He further alleged that the company was also willfully defaulting in payment of statutory dues of provident fund (PF), sales tax (ST), insurance, employees state insurance corp (ESIC) and credit society.
Mr Ansari was employed with Cambata Aviation at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai since 1 March 1996 and had not received salary since March 2016.
The CIC observed in his order that, “…the company had deprived salary since March 2016 to its more than 2,100 employees on the pretext of bad condition of finance and loss in the business. On the other hand the company had given increments in January 2014, and recruited more than 800 employees in the year 2014 and 2015, which was a contradictory activity of Cambata Aviation.
“Furthermore the company had not issued Form No. 16 for the period from 2014-15, to 2016-17 to its 2,100 employees, which aroused suspicion and compelled him (Mr Ansari) to file a RTI application for financial statements, which could unearth the scam of his company such as willfully defaulting statutory dues of PF, ST, insurance, ESIC and credit society.’’
Mr Ansari was denied personal hearing for his first appeal due to which CIC Jhulka felt this raised suspicion in Mr Ansari’s mind that the “CPIO and FAA were indirectly helping Cambata Aviation under the pretext of Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
The CIC pointed out that information sought by Mr Ansari was clearly in the larger public interest and so cannot come under denial of information section. He cited the Supreme Court case of Girish Ramchandra Deshpande vs Central Information Commission &Ors.
SLP(C) No. 27734 of 2012 dated 03/10/2012, which stated: “the details disclosed by a person in his income tax returns are ‘personal information’, which stand exempted from disclosure under clause (j) of Section 8(1)of the RTI Act, unless it involves a larger public interest and the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the Appellate Authority is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.”
The CIC order will hopefully, be implemented by the I-T department and provide ground for employees like Mr Ansari to further their cause.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and 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”