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State Bank of India refuses to divulge names of corporate donors buying up electoral bonds for political parties

By Our Representative
The State Bank of India (SBI) -- the only bank authorised by the Government to sell Electoral Bonds (EBs) to sold to individuals or other entities to be given to political parties as a means to fund their poll activity -- has refused to divulge the identity and other details of buyers under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act).
Introduced by the Government of India following a law passed in Parliament and notified by Union Finance Ministry in January 2018, EBs have so far been sold through various SBI branches in three phases -- in March, April and May, this year.
After waiting for the first two sale windows to close, senior RTI activist of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Ventakesh Nayak submitted a plea to the SBI details of denomination-wise total number of electoral bonds sold in March and April 2018, along with the total number of buyers of each denomination.
Nayak also sought details total number of buyers of electoral bonds in each category -- individuals, company, firm, charitable trust and others who purchased electoral bonds; copies of application forms received against which electoral bonds were sold; copies of redemption slips received and accepted by political parties in relation to EBs; and methodology applied to ascertain whether or not a political party redeeming EBs had secured at least 1% of the votes polled during the last round of general elections to Parliament and state assemblies.
The SBI provided data about the number of EBs sold. Thus, the RTI reply said, SBI sold 776 EBs worth Rs. 333.48 crore during the two phases through 5 out of 11 notified branches. SBI's Mumbai branch recorded the highest sale of EBs (both phases included) at a little more than Rs 173 crore, followed by the Kolkata branch (Rs 70 crore), the New Delhi branch (Rs 63 crore and the Gandhinagar branch (Rs 19 crore).
The most number of EBs of the highest denomination, Rs 1 crore were sold through the Mumbai SBI branch (166 nos) followed by New Delhi branch (62 nos), Kolkata branch (40 nos), Chennai branch (14 nos) and Gandhinagar branch (9 nos).
In terms of absolute numbers, EBs of Rs.10 lakh denomination were sold the most, netting Rs 45.80 crore. However EBs of Rs 1 crore denomination were sold to the tune of Rs 291 crore through multiple branches of the Bank. On the other hand, only 17 EBs of Rs 1,000 denomination and 10 of Rs. 1,00,000 were sold during this period.
Further details show that duirng the first phase, of March 2018,520 EBs worth a little more than Rs 222 crore of various denominations were sold through SBI's designated branches in major metropolital cities. But during the second phase, only 256 EBs worth Rs 101 crore worth of EBs were sold, which is 50% lesser than the sale clocked during the first phase.
Says Nayak, "The above data about the implementation of the EB scheme obtained from SBI under the RTI Act clearly indicates that it is serving the super-rich and somewhat less rich donors more than the rest of the citizenry", regretting, SBI withheld information about who all bought the bonds by "wrongful" interpretating the RTI Act.
According to Nayak, "The application form used by the buyer and the redemption slip filled up by the political party for claiming the funds presented by the donor have been rejected under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act by the CPIO claiming 'fiduciary' relationship", adding, "So the CPIO is treating both the buyer of EBs and the political parties as being in a 'fiduciary' relationship with SBI!"
Even worse, Nayak says, "Is the SBI CPIO's claim that all reports sent to the Government of India and the RBI regarding the sale and redemption of EBs are also covered by 'fiduciary' relationship."
Continues Nayak, "The SBI's CPIO has also invoked Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, namely the protection available for personal information against unwarranted invasion of the privacy of an individual, to reject access to information about both buyers of EBs and political parties which redeemed them."
Calling it "an incorrect decision", Nayak says, "If the reply is based on factual data, then it implies that all EBs were bought only by individuals and not corporations, firms, associations or trusts", which is clearly not true.
"However", he adds, "It is difficult to reasonably conjecture that none of these private entities used EBs to make donations to political parties. Prior to the launch of the EB scheme, corporations and Electoral Trusts made large-sized donations to political parties. This information is available on the website of the Election Commission of India (ECI) which the Association for Democratic Reforms analyses and reports upon from time to time."

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