Is the Central Information Commission (CIC) trying to curb access to the information on Electoral Bonds received through the Right Information Act? On 10 March 2022, the CIC passed two orders in favour of the State Bank of India (SBI), the only authorised bank to sell and redeem Electoral Bonds, and denied information to the RTI applicant –
In the first order, the CIC said that the RTI applicant has sought information of ‘commercial confidence’ hence it cannot be shared under Section 8(1) (d) of the RTI Act.
In the second order, the CIC denied information to the applicant on the ground that the information sought by the RTI applicant is ‘voluminous in nature’ and it is not readily available with the SBI. Hence, the information sought by the applicant can be exempted under Section 7(9) of the RTI Act.
What information were sought under the two RTI applications?
In the first RTI application, filed in December 2019, the RTI applicant (Retd.) Commodore Lokesh Batra, sought information on the cost borne by the government related to the sale and reimbursement of the Electoral Bonds. In the RTI he asked:
-Phase-wise and Total amount levied with respect to Government Commission on Electoral Bonds (sale & redemption) - Purchased by Donors for the Political Parties during 12 phases.
- Phase-wise and Total amount reimbursed by the Government with respect to Government Commission of Electoral Bonds (sale & purchase) - levied on Electoral bonds Purchased by Donors during 12 phases
- A certified copy of Administration Order/ Instructions is also requested with respect to - Government Commision on Electoral Bonds (sale & Purchase)
In the second RTI application, filed in April 2020, Commodore Batra sought information related to the printing of the Electoral Bonds. In the RTI he asked,
-Date-wise and Denomination-wise - Electoral Bonds ordered/printed and taken on charge in the inventory, and the total value of these in rupees.
-Denomination-wise, Electoral Bonds held in the inventory of public authority -after the completion of sale procedure 13 phases.
Since Batra was denied information by the First Appellate Authority in case of both the RTI applicants, he filed an appeal in the CIC. Both the appeals were heard on 10 March 2022 by the CIC.
Multiple concerns have been raised upon the controversial Electoral Bonds scheme ever since its inception in 2018. Experts have cricitised the scheme for making the whole process of political donation opaque. It is only through RTI that some information related to the sale and purchase of bonds have come in public domain.
But 10 March 2022 CIC’s order could act as a big deterrent for the RTI applicants in receiving information under the RTI Act.
Interestingly, in the past, SBI had responded to similar questions mentioned in the two RTIs. During the hearing at the CIC, the appellant had emphasized that the information sought is in public interest.
But the CIC denied information to the applicant under Section 8 (1) (d) and Section 7(9) of the RTI Act.
What does Section 8 (1) (d) and 7 (9) of RTI Act Say?
Section 8(1) (d) reads as : information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.’
The Section 8(1) (d) clearly states that the information has to be disclosed if the matter is in public interest. And the information related to the Electoral Bonds is important for every voter.
While Section 7 (9) states, “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.”
Over here one can cite the Hon’ble High Court of Madras, dated 07 January 2010. It said,
“The other objections that they are maintaining a large number of documents… and they are short of human resources cannot be raised to whittle down the citizens’ right to seek information…The right to information having been guaranteed by the law of Parliament, the administrative difficulties in providing information cannot be raised. Such pleas will defeat the very right of citizens to have access to information.”
Over 7000 crores worth of Electoral Bonds have been sold ever since its inception in 2018. But we still don’t know who the donors of the bonds are, making the political donation process opaque. A petition questioning the opacity of the scheme already pending in the Supreme Court since 2019. Election Commission of India, State Bank of India and Ministry of Law and Justice have raised their objections on the sale of bonds even before the scheme was launched.