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Why is RBI rejecting RTI access to demonetisation records?

By Venkatesh Nayak*
A recent media report quotes the Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), Government of India, saying, there was no need to go into the process of decision making regarding the 8th November demonetisation drive. If the report is true, this is a worrisome departure from the commitment to transparency and accountability voiced by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, time and again.

Demonetisation and the tale of two RTIs

On 14 November, within a week of the demonetisation drive, I filed an RTI application with the DEA seeking copies of the Cabinet Note that was approved by the Union Cabinet regarding the decision to demonetise currency notes of Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 500 denomination. I also sought to know whether the government had sought people’s views on the issue of demonetisation prior to making the decision because the NDA Government had taken steps to consult people on several other important policy issues in the past.
I have not received any reply from the CPIO, DEA despite 40 days lapsing since the delivery of my RTI application to the DEA. As not responding to an RTI application for 30 days must be treated as a refusal to disclose the requested information under Section 7(2) of the RTI Act, I have despatched a first appeal with the first appellate authority of DEA today. Given the reported statement of the Secretary, DEA above, the CPIO’s lack of response is not surprising because the decision to maintain undue secrecy about the demonetisation appears to be sanctioned at the highest level of the bureaucracy in that Department.
I had filed another RTI application with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on this issue. I had sought copies of the minutes of all Board meetings of RBI from the date on which the recommendation to demonetise the Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 500 currency notes, communication sent in this regard to the Government, representations received from any person or organisation suggesting demonetisation and all file notings on this subject. There were some media reports about think tanks around the country commenting that they had recommended various ways of tackling the problem of black money including demonetisation, but the course of action that the Government eventually followed was not what they had recommended. Hence these queries.
RBI rejected access to its Board meeting minutes and recommendations made to the Government and related file notings under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. As for representations received form the public the CPIO has invoked Section 7(9) saying that the information cannot be provided in the form sought as it would lead to disproportionate diversion of resources of the organisation.

What is wrong with this reply from the CPIO of RBI?

1) There are at least eight grounds for rejecting access to information under Section 8(1)(a), namely, sovereignty and territorial integrity, strategic, scientific, economic, security and defence interests of the State, relations with foreign States and incitement to an offence. The CPIO seems to imply that all of them are equally applicable to the queries in the RTI application. To imply that I would use the information to incite an offence without giving me an opportunity to be heard can amount to libel. There is no detailed reasoning as to how Section 8(1)(a) is applicable in the CPIO’s decision.
2) Using Section 7(9) to deny access to the representations received from the people about demonetisation is also unlawful. According to Section 7(1) a request for information under the RTI Act may be rejected only for reasons specified in Sections 8 and 9. Section 7(9) is a facilitating clause under which information must be provided in the form in which it was sought unless the two conditions – disproportionate diversion of resources or danger t the safety and preservation of the record apply.
If Section 7(9) is invoked, then the public authority has a duty to provide access in some other form that is convenient to it such as inspection or in electronic form etc. The CPIO has simply ignored all these issues and rejected the RTI application in toto which is against both the letter and the spirit of the Act. The objective of the RTI Act is fostering greater transparency and accountability in Government. Yet the RBI in this case and in the earlier case, the DEA, seem to be going against the very purpose of the RTI Act.
3) It is not as if the RBI refuses to disclose minutes of meetings of all committees that provide it with advice. For example, the minutes of the meeting of the Committee on Monetary Policy held as recently as 21 December, 2016 are proactively disclosed on its website. The refusal to disclose the minutes of the Board meeting where the decision was taken to recommend demonetisation of the high value currency notes, is perplexing to say the very least.
4) Inaugurating the 10th Annual RTI Convention organised by the CIC in October, 2015, the Hon’ble Prime Minister had said that people should not only have the right to seek copies of official records under RTI, but also demand accountability for the decisions taken by public authorities. It is sad that the Hon’ble PM’s vision of transparency is not shared by the officers who work under him. I was not even questioning the wisdom of the decision. Instead I had sought only copies of official records containing details of the decision making process. The RTI Act requires that such information be made public.
5) The RTI application was delivered to the RBI’s office on the 17th of November. Although the acknowledgment came quickly, the substantial reply came after 30 days of receipt of the RTI application. The CPIO did not adhere to the time limits specified in Section 7(1) of the RTI Act either.
Demonetisation is an issue that has affected everybody in the country, from newborns to the deceased. Cash-starved people have had problems paying hospital charges when mothers delivered babies and bereaved families faced problems paying fees at cemeteries or crematoria to bury or cremate their dead. If there cannot be complete transparency on this issue, then it must be assumed that the transparency regime has simply not taken roots in India even after 11 years of implementation of the RTI Act.
While confidentiality prior to the making of the demonetisation decision is understandable, continued secrecy after the decision is implemented is difficult to understand when crores of Indians including this author have faced difficulties due to the shortage of cash supply. When the DEA and RBI want every citizen of the country to come clean (in the name of combating black money, corruption and fake currency notes), their reluctance to become equally transparent and accountable is unjustified, to the say the very least.
A couple of weeks ago, while hearing a bunch of petitions, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India also asked the Attorney General of India whether he would produce the Cabinet Note relating to the demonetisation decision. The Apex Court has since recommended that these petitions be referred to a Constitution Bench.
RBI and DEA have a statutory obligation to be completely transparent and accountable to the people of India on the subject of demonetisation.

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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