In a landmark order last week, the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) has asked four public authorities – the Reserve Bank of India (RBI); State Bank of India (SBI); the Election Commission of India (ECI) and; the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) to provide names of individuals and entities that wanted to hide their identities in the electoral bond scheme.
The commission, which is the apex body under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, issued a show cause notice to all four asking as to why penalty should not be imposed on their central public information officers (CIPOs) for not providing information that falls in the ambit of their organisation.
The order is part of a two-year battle fought by well-known RTI activists Venkatesh Nayak, who is a research scholar at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd).
Commodore Batra had procured file notings, which reveal that several requests were made to keep names of donors a secret.
Mr Nayak, who was initially denied information about any such requests having been made, pursued the matter with the help of RTI replies received by Cmde Batra. He sought information on:
The total number of representation or petitions or communications received by the government till date, from donors regarding the need for maintaining confidentiality of their identity while making donations to political parties;
A clear photocopy of all representations or petitions or communication as described above;
A clear photocopy of the Draft Electoral Bond Scheme prepared by your Department for consultation with the Reserve Bank of India and the Election commission of India
As there was no reply for 40 days, Mr Nayak filed first appeal to the Appellate Authority requesting him to “admit this appeal and direct the concerned CPIO to disclose all information” asked for. The first appellate authority (FAA), stated that the information comes under the offices of Department of Financial Services (DFS), the Election Commission and co-ordination section of DEA and ordered transfer of Mr Nayak’s RTI application to these three public authorities.
Mr Nayak’s RTI application was subsequently forwarded to the RTI section of the RBI. All four public authorities claimed that they have no information to furnish.
Mr Nayak then filed a second appeal to the CIC asking it to “invoke its power under Section 18(3) of the RTI Act to make a determination as to which of the four public authorities actually holds or controls the information requested in the original RTI application.
He also asked the CIC to direct the public authorities, which hold the information, to disseminate it. He also asked the CIC to direct all four public authorities to provide rigorous training to their respective CPIOs.
Mr Nayak’s second appeal highlighted how each public authority was eligible to provide the information but was shirking its responsibility.
He wrote, “The electoral bond scheme has been issued by the DEA. Yet, the CPIO did not reply for over 30 days and when I filed an appeal with the FAA, my RTI application was transferred to the co-ordination section of the DEA.”
Mr Nayak also said, “SBI has been named as the designated bank from which any person may purchase an electoral bond of the denomination of one’s choice subject by completing the procedural formalities described in the scheme. It is inconceivable that it does not have information as it must have been consulted prior to the issuance of the gazette notification of 2 January 2018 regarding the electoral bond scheme as it will be rolled out through the largest bank over which it exercises jurisdiction.”
As for the ECI, Mr Nayak points out, “…it is the election management and monitoring body established by the Constitution of India. It keeps a record of the electoral bonds scheme as far as obtaining and publishing details of the donors who make donations to political parties through the purchase of such bonds. Hence, it is inconceivable that it does not have the required information.”
About the RBI, Mr Nayak’s second appeal said, “it is the sole authority that regulates the affairs of all scheduled banks in India. The Finance Act, 2018, amended Section 31 of the Reserve Bank of India, 1934 to include a reference to electoral bonds. It is inconceivable that the RBI would have been excluded in the process of consultation on the draft electoral bonds scheme. Common sense indicates that such consultation would have required provision of a copy of the draft electoral bonds scheme.’’
On 3 January 2020, central information commissioner Suresh Chandra issued a show cause notice to all four public authorities asking why they should not be penalised and to provide the information sought by Mr Nayak. The deadline to do so is by the end of this month, for all the four public authorities.
(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”