To bring transparency in donations to political parties, the government came up with electoral bonds (EBs) in February 2017 and notified them in January 2018.
Since then, EBs have been sold through various SBI branches in three phases - in March, April and May—of 2018. Information obtained under the Right to Information (RTI) Act has revealed that, cumulatively, SBI is has sold 776 EBs worth Rs333.48 crore during first two phases five out of the 11 notified branches. However, SBI has refused to divulge identity and other details of buyers under RTI.
SK Thakur, central public information officer (CPIO) of SBI has not provided information, saying that compiling such information would lead to disproportionate diversion of the Bank's resources. He also decided that all reports sent to the Central government about the sale and purchase of EBs were in ‘fiduciary capacity’ and could not be disclosed under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act.
Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar and coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), who filed the RTI application, seeking information on buyers and denominations of EBs that they have purchased, has been denied most of the information.
In the part information that was given to him, the CPIO provided only denomination-wise figures of the sale of EBs through the designated branches. States Mr Nayak, “Even this data did not match with the data the same CPIO had earlier supplied to Mr Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, founder of Factly.in and one of my fellow co-convenors of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI). So, I filed a first appeal with SBI's first appellate authority (FAA) in July 2018. The SBI's FAA has now admitted that the CPIO, SBI, goofed up while providing the EB sale data against (sic) my RTI application. In his latest communication following the FAA's order, the CPIO has stated that the EB sale data he provided for the Gandhinagar Branch earlier actually belonged to Bengaluru branch of SBI!”
Mr Nayak is filing a second appeal with the Central Information Commission.
Information Sought under the RTI Application:
(i) The denomination-wise total number of electoral bonds sold by each of your authorised branches in March and April 2018 along with the total number of buyers of each denomination;
(ii) The total number of buyers of electoral bonds in each category, namely, individuals, HUF, company, firm, charitable trust and others who purchased electoral bonds from each of your authorised branches in March and April 2018;
(iii) A clear photocopy of all application forms received by your authorised branches against which electoral bonds were sold in March and April 2018;
(iv) A clear photocopy of all redemption slips received and accepted by your authorised branches from every political party in relation to electoral bonds till date;
(v) The methodology applied by your Bank to ascertain whether or not a political party redeeming electoral bonds with any of your authorised branches had secured at least 1% of the votes polled during the last round of general elections to Parliament or the state legislatures, till date;
(vi) A clear photocopy of all declarations of beneficial ownership received from companies purchasing electoral bonds in March and April 2018.
(vii) A clear photocopy of all returns or reports, by whatever name called, submitted by your Bank to the Government of India regarding the sale and encashment of electoral bonds till date; and
(viii) A clear photocopy of all returns or reports, by whatever name called, submitted by your Bank to the Reserve Bank of India regarding the sale and encashment of electoral bonds till date."
The Trend of EB Donations:
1) Cumulatively, SBI is said to have sold 776 EBs worth Rs333.48 crore (INR3.33 billion) during the two phases through five out of 11 notified branches.
2) SBI's Mumbai branch recorded the highest sale of EBs (both phases included) at a little more than Rs173 crore (INR1.73 billion+) followed by the Kolkata branch— a little more than Rs70 crore (INR700 million+), the New Delhi branch—a little more than Rs63 crore (INR630 million+) and the Gandhinagar - a little more than Rs19 crore (INR190 million+). Chennai's SBI branch sold the least- a little more than Rs18 crore (INR180 million+)
3) The most number of EBs of the highest denomination Rs1 crore (INR10 million) 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.)
4) In terms of absolute numbers, EBs of Rs10 lakh denomination were sold the most, netting Rs45.80 crore (INR458 million). However, EBs of Rs1 crore denomination were sold to the tune of Rs291 crores (INR2.9 billion) through multiple branches of the Bank.
5) Only 17 EBs of Rs1,000 denomination and 10 of Rs1,00,000 (INR100,000) were sold during this period.
6) Even though the EB Scheme provides for issuance of bonds of Rs10,000 denomination, it appears that there were no buyers of EBs of this denomination.
The 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.
What Are Electoral Bonds?
The EB scheme allows any person (including HUF), company, firm, charitable trust or unincorporated body of individuals to buy EBs from the designated branches of SBI
during each window of sale that the government announces from time to time. EBs are in the nature of promissory notes and carry no rate of interest. The identity of the buyer is not recorded on the EB. So the political party will have no formal mechanism to know who the actual donor through EB is. A buyer could send EBs through his/her chauffeur to be delivered at the office of a political party. EBs have a validity of 15 days only. There is no limit on how many, or how much worth of EBs any person can buy. The recipient political parties have to redeem the EBs within this period using an SBI account. The value of EBs will not be credited to any other bank where the political party may have an account. If they miss the 15-day deadline, neither the buyer nor the recipient political party gets the money back. Instead, it will be deposited in the Prime Minister Relief Fund as per the Gazette notification for the EB Scheme.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and 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”