In a bizarre chain of events, the Central Information Commission (CIC), issued a stay order on the release of information on the Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) of Saraswat Co-operative Bank Limited in Mumbai.
This development came after the Supreme Court on July 2 dismissed the request of Punjab National Bank and Union Bank of India to stay the RTI notices to disclose information. Similar earlier petitions filed by the lenders; HDFC Bank, Axis Bank, ICICI Bank, and Yes Bank were refused by the Division Bench comprising of Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari.
In the RTI application filed on October 25, 2019, former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi sought information on Saraswat Co-operative Bank Ltd for the previous three years.
Apart from the RBI’s audit and inspection reports, Gandhi sought information on total NPAs, defaulters, fines, and penalties levied on the bank and the warnings issued.
Gandhi also mentioned in his petition, 2019 petition of RTI activist Girish Gandhi seeking the inspection reports of banks. The Apex Court came down heavily on RBI and asked to share all the information in Girish Mittal v. Parvati V. Sundaram.
Mittal appealed to the Supreme Court in April this year after RBI failed to disclose information he and his co-petitioner, Subhash Chandra Aggarwal had sought on its annual inspection reports of banks. In the petition, heard on April 28, the banks asked the Court to recall the 2015 judgment in the case Reserve Bank of India v Jayantilal N. Mistry.
In the 2015 judgment, the Supreme Court directed that there is no fiduciary relationship between the Central Bank and the financial institutions. Hence, it is obligated to release the information under the RTI Act, 2005.
On 31 May 2021, Girish Mittal was told by the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of RBI, “As regards the inspection reports/ risk assessment reports for the years FY17-18 and FY18-19, we have issued a notice under section 11(1) of the RTI Act to the bank/company concerned. On receipt of reply from the bank/company, further communication will be made.”
The notice issued under ‘Sector 11’ of the Act was not applicable in this case as it assumes the Central Bank has to seek permission from the Financial Institutions to release the third party information.
Both the applicants, Mittal and Gandhi, then filed an appeal before the first appellate authority (FAA) of RBI, seeking the inspection reports of the banks. The Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) was directed by the FAA to release the copies of the inspection reports.
The banks were quick to reach the CIC to file their second appeals, after which CIC Commissioner Suresh Chandra issued the stay order on the FAA order.
“The Commission after adverting to the facts and circumstances of the case, and perusal of the records, observes that the appellant has prayed for an interim order restraining the CPIO/FAA from releasing the information in terms of RTI application,” Chandra said in the order.
Gandhi wrote to the Chief Information Commissioner, asking him to recall the order after the Supreme Court has asked the information to be disclosed.
“The issue has been dealt with comprehensively by the Supreme Court and the information has been held to be disclosable. I would also like to point out that the power to stay any order has not been given to the Commission in the RTI Act by the Parliament.
Thus, the stay to the disclosure of the information is contrary to the directions of the Supreme Court and disrespect for the clear decision of the apex court for transparency. It is also an exercise without the sanction of the RTI Act and hence must be withdrawn.”
He also highlighted that the information body is in violation of the law as well as withholding information which the Supreme Court has directed to be released. “Parliament has not exempted ‘confidential’ information and the Commission’s action is in gross violation of the Supreme Court order and erroneous.
I must mention that the Supreme Court has not stayed its order and has specifically refused an application for review of the said judgment.
I must point out that the order was not related to the facts of the case but laid down the law with a clear ratio decidendi. The stay order (from CIC) effectively nullifies the Supreme Court’s order and is bad in law,” he added.
The Central Information Commission is a body in place to make the information accessible to the citizens through the Right to Information Act of 2005. With the series of events that took place, bypassing the law, it seems that the Banks and the Central body are keeping the information from the public.
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