The Supreme Court on Tuesday threatened the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) with contempt proceeding for not disclosing banks' annual inspection reports under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In January this year, the apex court had issued a notice to the central bank on a contempt petition.
Earlier, both, the apex court as well as Central Information Commission (CIC), had held that RBI cannot refuse to put in the public domain the annual inspection reports of banks. However, RBI has refused to follow these orders saying that these reports contain 'fiduciary information' as defined under the RTI Act and, hence, cannot be placed in the public domain.
The Supreme Court also directed RBI to decide its course of disclosure within one week, failing which the apex court says it will take necessary action against the central bank.
Commenting on the SC warning, Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner, says, "It is a very sad comment on RBI and its commitment to the law of the land. RBI is displaying complete arrogance and a basic lack of commitment to transparency. As one of the prime regulators of the nation, it must realise that it is setting a wrong example. If it will not obey the mandate of law, who will respect its directions?"
In the petition, Mumbai-based Girish Mittal, represented by senior counsel Prashant Bhushan and Pranav Sachdeva, contended that he had sought information under the RTI Act in December 2015 like copies of inspection reports of ICICI Bank, Axis Bank, HDFC Bank and State Bank of India (SBI) from April 2011 and copies of case files, with file notings on various irregularities detected by RBI in the case of Sahara Group of companies and erstwhile Bank of Rajasthan.
The petition recalled the Supreme Court ruling in a case that RBI is clearly not in any fiduciary relationship with any bank. RBI has no legal duty to maximise the benefit of any public sector or private sector bank and thus there is no relationship of 'trust' between them. (Read: SC issues contempt notice to RBI in RTI case
In the notice, the then central information commissioner Prof Sridhar Acharyulu had also asked the prime minister’s office (PMO), finance ministry and RBI to make public the letter sent by previous governor Raghuram Rajan on bad loans.
In the order, Prof Acharyulu had stated, "The Commission finds no merit in hiding the names of, details and action against wilful defaulters of big bad loans worth hundreds of crores of rupees. The RBI shall disclose the bad debt details of defaulters worth more than Rs1,000 crore at the beginning, of Rs500 crore or less at later stage within five days and collect such information from the banks in due course to update their voluntary disclosures from time to time as a practice under Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act."
Prof Acharyulu, irked over the denial of information on wilful defaulters who had unpaid loans of Rs50 crore and more, asked the RBI governor to explain why maximum penalty should not be imposed on him for ‘dishonouring’ a verdict from the apex court, which had upheld a decision taken by then Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, calling for disclosure of names of wilful defaulters.
Earlier in February 2016, the Supreme Court had directed RBI to furnish a list of the companies which are in default of loans in excess of Rs500 crore or whose loans have been restructured under corporate debts restructuring (CDR) scheme by banks and financial institutions. (Read: Supreme Court asks RBI to submit list of big defaulters
Even in December 2015, the apex court, in a landmark judgement, had told RBI that the banking regulator cannot withhold information citing 'fiduciary relations' under the RTI Act.
Hearing a set of transferred cases, a division bench of Justice MY Eqbal and Justice C Nagappan had said, "From the past we have also come across financial institutions which have tried to defraud the public. These acts are neither in the best interests of the Country nor in the interests of citizens. To our surprise, the RBI as a Watch Dog should have been more dedicated towards disclosing information to the general public under the Right to Information Act. We also understand that the RBI cannot be put in a fix, by making it accountable to every action taken by it. However, in the instant case the RBI is accountable and as such it has to provide information to the information seekers under Section 10(1) of the RTI Act."
In most of the transferred cases, Mr Gandhi, the former central information commissioner, while directing the RBI to provide information sought by applicants, had rejected the central bank's contention of 'fiduciary relation' for denying information.