Should information on the disbursal of loans and their recovery from a public sector bank (PSB) come under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act or does it come under its exemption clauses?
As per a central information commission (CIC) order last week, it comes under the ‘fiduciary relationship’—between the bank and the borrower—and, hence, the information cannot be divulged. Also, CIC Saroja Punhani reprimanded the RTI applicant for filing multiple applications on the same subject, thus increasing the work of the Central public information officer (CPIO) who is already overworked. She also agreed with the CPIO about the third-party clause that comes into the picture and hence, information cannot be revealed.
Raman Varma, the RTI applicant, sought the following information through an RTI application dated 23 July 2021 from State Bank of India’s (SBI) Mohali branch:
a) Please provide a list of loans or limits sanctioned by the bank in the past three years. Additionally, provide details on the number of legal opinions conducted, the distribution of legal opinions to advocates, and the number of legal opinions or TIR (title investigation reports) received by the bank from specific advocates. Kindly provide complete information.
b) Please provide the number of advocates on your panel and their names. Also, mention the number of legal opinions or TIR requested from each advocate. Additionally, provide complete information on the fees distributed to all these advocates, including individual details.
c) Could you please provide the number of cases filed by your bank for recovery and under section 138 of the NI Act? Include details of the advocates who filed these cases and the fees paid by the bank to each advocate for their involvement in these cases. Kindly provide complete information.
d) Please furnish the list of advocates who assisted in translating the title deed and other documents during the legal opinions or TIR process. Additionally, provide complete information on the expenses incurred for these translation services.
The CPIO of the Bank replied that 135 loans have been sanctioned in the last three years but the details of the same cannot be provided as “the information related to this is concerned to the third party, which is exempted to be given u/s 8(1)(j) of Right to Information Act 2005. Further, the bank keeps this information under fiduciary capacity which cannot be revealed u/s 8(1)(e) of RTI Act.”
The only information that the CPIO provided is the list of advocates on the panel of the Bank. He also replied that the Bank has not filed any case for the recovery in the past three years. Mr Varma, the RTI applicant who had filed multiple RTIs on the same subject in 2021, went in for a second appeal hearing.
Last week, CIC Ms Punhani firstly observed that Mr Varma had sought “for humungous information by filing multiple applications under RTI Act seeking same information by merely interchanging the points of information sought, which majorly do not conform to Section 2 (f) of RTI Act and also appears to be voluminous in nature, collation and compilation of which would entail diversion of manpower resources of the Public Authority; and thus, cannot be provided in view of Section 7(9) of RTI Act.”
Ms Punhani also cited the Supreme Court's observation in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) & others vs Aditya Bandhopadhyay and others [(2011) stating that “The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquility and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.
“The nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties. The threat of penalties under the RTI Act and the pressure of the authorities under the RTI Act should not lead to employees of a public authorities prioritising 'information furnishing', at the cost of their normal and regular duties.”
Ms Punhani agreed with the CPIO, who she felt rightly quoted the third-party clause. She noted in her CIC order that “It is also not out of place to note that the appellant has sought the personal information of third party advocates and other persons which in itself reveals that such information contains the elements of not only the personal information of third parties which stands exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(j) of RTI Act but also information like legal opinion obtained by bank from its panel advocates are held /available in a fiduciary capacity with the Respondent and is hit by Section 8(1)(e) of RTI Act.”
When Moneylife contacted former CIC and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi, he stated that “In my opinion, some of the information can be legitimately claimed as being held in a fiduciary relationship.
However, I don't agree with the claim that it is covered by 8(1)(j). The claim for exemption on the ground of it being third-party is absolutely wrong. Section 11 is a procedure not an exemption.”
He also stated that the CPIO can use his discretion if the information is of larger public interest despite the third-party clause.
Ms Punhani also felt that Mr Varma had outstretched the interpretation of Section 2 (f) as he has referred to inferences that he wanted the CPIO to work upon. She noted in her order that “It casts immense pressure on the CPIOs to ensure that they provide the correct deduction/ inference to avoid being subject to penal provisions under the RTI Act.”
Section 2 (f) is strictly about information in the form of records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advice, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.
Ms Punhani's final order stated: “Nonetheless, point-wise replies furnished by the CPIO to assist the Appellant is in the spirit of RTI, merits of which cannot be called into question. In view of the above, no further relief can be granted in the matter. However, the Appellant is advised to make judicious use of his right to information in future.”
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(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)