Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Non-disclosure of RTI information on bank frauds "detrimental" to public interest: Supreme Court to RBI

Shailesh Gandhi
By Our Representative
In what is being described as a “landmark judgment” in the history of the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, the Supreme Court of India has rejected the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) plea not to disclose information to the general public about the action it takes on banks against their alleged irregularities.
In a batch matter of 11 cases transferred from the High Courts of Bombay and Delhi, the Apex Court upheld the orders of Single Commissioner Benches of the Central Information Commission (CIC) directing RBI to disclose a deal of information about action taken regarding irregularities of banks, loan defaulters etc.
Ten of these cases were decided by former Information Commissioner (IC) Shailesh Gandhi, and one by Satyananda Mishra. Says RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak in an email alert to Counterview, Gandhi’s legacy particularly deserves “in-depth and informed debate, particularly in the light of what the Apex Court has said in the judgment and due to the fact that he was the first civil society appointee in CIC.”
RBI invoked possible detriment to the nation's economic interest [Section 8(1)(a)], commercial confidence of Banks [Section 8(1)(d)] and fiduciary relationship with the Banks to reject information access.
The information sought was about
  • Reports of inspection of public sector banks, including cooperative banks conducted by the RBI on receipt of complaints of irregularities against them, fines imposed on them, all correspondence conducted with them in this regard and final reports and findings of RBI in such cases;
  • List of loan defaulters and action taken against them;
  • Minutes of board meetings of banks;
  • Losses suffered by Banks in the currency derivatives market (market to market losses);
  • Grade classification of a Cooperative Bank, etc.
Refusing to buy RBI arguments, the Apex Court said, “RBI is clearly not in any fiduciary relationship with any bank. RBI has no legal duty to maximize the benefit of any public sector or private sector bank, and thus there is no relationship of ‘trust’ between them.”
It added, “RBI has a statutory duty to uphold the interest of the public at large, the depositors, the country’s economy and the banking sector. Thus, RBI ought to act with transparency and not hide information that might embarrass individual banks. It is duty bound to comply with the provisions of the RTI Act and disclose the information sought by the respondents herein."
Rejecting the contention of exemption under Section 8(1)(e), the Apex Court said, “Facts reveal that banks are trying to cover up their underhand actions, they are even more liable to be subjected to public scrutiny”, adding, “RBI in association with them has been trying to cover up their acts from public scrutiny.”
Insisting that it is the responsibility of the RBI to take “rigid action against those banks, which have been practicing disreputable business practices”, the Apex Court said, “RBI as a Watch Dog should have been more dedicated towards disclosing information to the general public under the Right to Information Act."
Dismissing invocation of “economic interests of the country” to reject RTI information, the Apex Court described the RBI argument on this count as “baseless”, “unsubstantiated” and “totally misconceived”, agreeing with CIC that information sought under RTI “would hugely serve public interest, and non-disclosure would be significantly detrimental to public interest and not in the economic interest of India.”

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