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Little evidence to suggest that RTI being misused against nationalized banks, contends senior activist

By Our Representative
Taking strong exception to the high-level report by the committee formed by Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan to review governance of nationalized banks in India (click HERE), which recommends that public sector banks should be out of the purview of the Right to Information Act, 2005, a senior activist Venkatesh Nayak has said the committee's attitude towards RTI is “very disturbing” and “problematic”, as there is no evidence to suggest that RTI is in any way being misused against the nationalized banks.
Working as programme coordinator, access to information programme, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Nayak says, “The report blames the RTI Act as one of the several external constraints on the governance of public sector banks. The committee has found that coverage under the RTI Act inhibits the public sector (PSU) banks' ability to compete with their counterparts in the private sector as the latter are not covered by the same law.”
Pointing out that the committee recommends that the external constraints be addressed first by the ministry of finance before addressing the internal weaknesses that affect the competitiveness of PSU banks, the activist says, while he is not competent to comment on the banking and financial issues discussed in the report, “publicly available facts” indicate “only 20 of the 30 plus nationalized banks have submitted their RTI returns to the Central Information Commission (IC), through their parent Ministry of Finance, for the year 2011-12.”
Nayak points towards how RTI remains a low priority with nationalized banks, much against the RBI characterizing it as a constraint: “Statistics for the year 2012-13 are not available.” But “the available data indicates that, on an average, the maximum number of RTI applications per branch received by a PSU bank during this period is an 'astronomically high' 2.25 applications for Allahabad Bank followed by Bank of Baroda at an average of 2 RTI applications per branch”!
Nayak says, “Several banks have received an average of less than one RTI application per branch during this period. Of course, this is only a statistical picture because some branches, including the head office would have received many more applications than the average. Nevertheless, the point that I am illustrating here is that work-wise there is simply no logic to the committee's claim that the Banks are burdened by RTI applications.”
Nayak insists, “The RTI burden in those branches receiving more applications than others could be reduced by appointing more public information officers.” He adds, “Surely bankers know this solution better than their customers.”
Nayak further says, “The highest percentage of rejection of RTI applications in the same year was 52.9 per cent by the State Bank of Hyderabad followed by 41.5 per cent by Vijaya Bank. Corporation bank alone had not rejected a single RTI application and the lowest rejection rate was 6.4 per cent for the UCO Bank. Most other PSU banks had rejected between 13 per cent and 50 per cent of the RTI applications.”
The activist comments, “With such low average figures for receipt of RTI applications and such high rejections rates, it is not clear how the RTI Act can be treated as a constraint on the governance of public sector Banks. The Committee has simply failed to explain its point.”
Nayak says that the committee starts its report by stating that the financial position of PSU banks is “fragile” and that capital is “significantly eroded” with the proportion of stressed assets rising rapidly. “When I filed two rounds of requests for information about non-performing assets (NPAs) of 10 PSU banks, almost every bank rejected the request on grounds of commercial confidence, fiduciary relationship and/or personal privacy”, he underlines.
“These banks are not willing to reveal to citizens who deposit their hard earned money with them as to who has defaulted on loans. Yet the committee goes ahead and reports that the RTI Act is a constraint on the governance of PSU banks”, Nayak says.
The activist says that there is an urgent need to “debate and oppose is this trend of blaming everything bad on the RTI Act”, adding, “No bank secrets have been disclosed under the RTI Act till date. This shows the strength of the legitimate exemptions under the RTI Act which the committee fails to recognise.”
He adds, “We as civil society actors must challenge the banks to show how RTI has adversely affected their performance in objective terms. Until then such criticism of the RTI Act must be treated as merely a case of overflowing of the bile due to an unhealthy lifestyle. We could however wish them- Munnabhai style: Get well soon".

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