Do copies of the income tax filing returns, TDS paid on all repairs and expenses, invoice and payment details and a PAN card of a cooperative housing society come under the ambit of disclosures under the RTI? Yes, says the central information commissioner (CIC), toppling the Income Tax (I-T) office’s reply that these come under the exemption sections of the RTI, leading to its denial of information.
CIC Saroj Punjani, quoting from various CIC decisions and court judgments, directed the central public information officer (CPIO) to revisit the RTI application and provide the available information as sought by the applicant, asking the CPIO to send the commission his compliance report.
RTI applicant Melvin Titus filed an RTI application in August 2021 to the I-T office in Thane (W) seeking the following information from the Ashiana Cooperative Housing Society
• Income tax filing return copies filed for the past 13 years, from the year 2009 to 2021
• Insurance copies every year, from the year 2009 to 2021
• TDS paid on all repairs and expenses, from the year 2009 to 2021
• Invoices & payment details, from the year 2009 to 2021
• Society PAN and TAN card number
The CPIO denied the information, citing Section 8(1)(e) & (j) of the RTI Act, 2005. Since the First Appellate Authority (FAA) upheld the CPIO’s rejection, Mr Titus filed a second appeal with the information commission which was heard recently. Mr Titus had also sought copies of the inquiry report of Ashiana conducted by the I-T department. He had also sought the action taken report to his various letters and grievance petition to the I-T department.
At the second hearing, Mr Titus prayed for penalising the CPIO under Section 20 (1) of RTI Act 2005, 20 (2) RTI Act 2005 and u/s 19 (8) of the RTI Act. He appealed for natural justice by way of providing the documents he had sought. The CPIO of the I-T department, Mukesh Prakash, insisted this was personal information and could not be given
CIC Punhani stressed the fact that the RTI applicant is a member of the cooperative housing society about which he is seeking information. The CIC also qualified the connotation of personal information—the reason for which information was being denied in this case—as irrelevant. The CIC took note of the issue regarding the “personal information” held by an individual in his personal capacity and the personal information held by the entities/ corporations/ trusts in their private capacity.
The CIC cited the following before directing the CPIO to provide the required information:
• The expression ‘individual’ must be construed in an expansive sense and would include a body of individuals. The said exemption would be available even to unincorporated entities as also private, closely held undertakings which are in substance alter egos of their shareholders. However, the expression individual cannot be used as a synonym for the expression ‘person’. Under the General Clauses Act, 1897 a person is defined to “include any company or association or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not”.
• Moreover, the Commission also examined the nature of the fiduciary relationship involved in the instant matter whereby the respondent denied the information of ITRs under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI act,2005. The Commission referred to the Hon’ble Supreme Court decision in CBSE v. Aditya Bandhopadhyay (2011) 8 SCC 497 wherein it was held as under:22.
‘.... But the words ‘information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship’ are used in section 8(1)(e) of RTI Act in its normal and well recognized sense, that is to refer to persons who act in a fiduciary capacity, with reference to a specific beneficiary or beneficiaries who are to be expected to be protected or benefited by the actions of the fiduciary – a trustee with reference to the beneficiary of the trust, a guardian with reference to a minor/physically/infirm/mentally challenged, a parent with reference to a child, a lawyer or a chartered accountant with reference to a client, a doctor or nurse with reference to a patient, an agent with reference to a principal, a partner with reference to another partner, a director of a company with reference to a shareholder, an executor with reference to a legatee, a receiver with reference to the parties to a lis, an employer with reference to the confidential information relating to the employee, and an employee with reference to business dealings/transaction of the employer.’
• Furthermore, the High Court of Gujarat in Rajendra Vasantlal Shah vs Central Information Commissioner and Ors (AIR 2011 Guj 70) had observed that any statutory body, institution or association meant to serve public good cannot claim to be working in a fiduciary capacity and held as under: ‘8.4. Respondent No. 4 is a religious charitable Trust, functioning under the Scheme formulated by the District Court, having considerable public importance, and registered under the Bombay Public Trust Act, as a religious charitable Trust. Considering its nature and activities, emerging from the objects of the Trust, it can be stated that disclosure of such information is in relation to any public interest of the activity. The Trust is engaged, in public activities, and disclosure of its statements and accounts of income-tax returns and assessments orders cannot be withheld under Section 8(1)(e) or (j)of the R.T.I.
Transparency in housing societies is always a matter of heated debate and contention as the managing committee often observes opaqueness.
(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”.)