There’s sometimes a debate on whether private companies or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or any other private entity, instead of an individual, can file an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Generally, the RTI applicant’s name is considered mandatory for filing such an application.
So, predictably, the central public information officer (CPIO) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (IBBI) rejected the request for information filed under RTI by the Utility Premises Pvt Ltd, a private company. The CPIO stated in his order, “Only citizens can seek information and since the applicant is not a citizen, it is not eligible to seek information under the RTI Act.’’
Utility Premises then filed its first appeal with the executive director, Santosh Kumar Shukla, who is also the first appellate authority (FAA) of IBBI. “Under Section 3 of the RTI Act, all the citizens have the right to information,’’ declared Mr Shukla and directed the CPIO to provide the requested information to the company.
Although Mr Shukla ordered in favour of the applicant, he, tongue-in-cheek, observed that although the RTI application is in the name of the company, the gender of the applicant is ‘male’.
He wrote in his order, “It is not clear as to how a company or corporate person can be categorised as ‘male’ or ‘female’. This prima facie shows that the appellant has attempted to procure the information pretending to be an individual citizen. This approach is certainly discouraged.”
“However,” he further stated, “I am also of the view that rejecting the information request on such technical grounds would not be in the spirit of the RTI Act which promotes transparency.”
Mr Shukla also observed, “It is noted that in section 2(f), ‘information’ means “any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.”
The information sought by the Utility Premises was regarding the status of the complaint filed by Manish Kumar M Chaudhari on 19 August 2021 at the IBBI, under Section 217 of the insolvency and bankruptcy code (IBC) read with Section 7 under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 against Sri Gopal Chaudhary.
The complainant has submitted this RTI query seeking the following information:
1) The stage of the inquiry for the complaint filed.
2) Have any steps been taken and what are those steps?
3) Has the IRP been called and questioned regarding the complaint and the charges?
4) What is the time limit for such inspection/investigation to be completed?
5) What is the next stage after the completion of the inquiry?
Santosh Kumar Shukla accepted the arguments of Utility Premises, which quoted the following cases wherein private entities had filed for RTI information and the CPIOs had rejected it:
• As per the order by CIC in Namita Pattanaik vs PIO, EPFO and also reiterated in JC Talukdar vs CE (E) CPWD Kolkata where, the Commission rejected the contention of the CPIO that the Act does not make provision for giving information to corporations, associations, companies etc. which are legal entities or persons, but not citizens. The objective of the RTI Act is to secure access to information to all citizens in order to promote transparency and accountability.
• “The Supreme Court in Bennett Coleman Co vs Union of India (1972) 2 SCC788 held that a shareholder is entitled to protection under of Article 19 and that an individual’s right is not lost by reason of the fact that he is a shareholder of the company. Therefore, via this appeal it is requested to kindly provide us with the information sought in the RTI application.”
• The CIC in Namita Pattanaik vs PIO, EPFO, Rourkela vide order dated 24.04.2017 observed, “the Commission rejects the contention of the CPIO that the Act does not make provision for giving information to corporations, associations, companies etc. which are legal entities/persons, but not citizens. The objective of the Right to Information Act is to secure access to information to all citizens in order to promote transparency and accountability…”
• In JC Talukdar vs CE(E) CPWD Kolkata, the CIC observed, “this is at heart a question of whether a company or its director will fall under the definition of citizen under the RTI Act. A company or a corporation is a “legal person” and, as such, it has a legal entity. This legal entity is distinct from their shareholders, managers, managing directors. This is a settled position in law since Solomon’s case decided long back by the House of Lords. They have rights and obligations and can sue and are sued in a court of law. Section 3 of the RTI Act confers “right to information” on all “citizens”. A “citizen” under the Constitution Part II that deals with “citizenship” can only be a natural born person and it does not even by implication include a legal or a juristic person… Even if it were conceded that a company or a corporate body is a legal entity distinct from its shareholders and it is not in itself a citizen it is a fact that all superior courts have been admitting applications in exercise of their extraordinary jurisdiction from companies, societies and associations under Article 19 of the Constitution of which the RTI Act, 2005 is a child.”
(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”.)