Recently the Punjab and Haryana High Court has issued a notice to a retired state information commissioner who allegedly sat over a judgement for more than three years. The matter pertained to an appeal seeking information under the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) from Chaudhary Devi Lal University at Sirsa.
This is not a one-off case. Information sought under the RTI Act is invariably delayed on one pretext or the other, often, in blatant violation of the RTI Act.
Sometimes, a denial could expose something far more critical: that the information provided even to the highest functionaries in the government is not thoroughly scrutinised.
Proceedings in the Lok Sabha
Poonam Mahajan and Tej Pratap Singh Yadav, members of Parliament (MP) had in 2017, raised certain questions in the Lok Sabha. One specific query of the MPs was “whether the Government has taken cognizance of several instances of violations by auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and its partner firms over the last ten years that pose serious threats to public interest and national security.”
Arjun Meghwal, minister of state, ministry of corporate affairs (MCA), answered the question in the Lok Sabha on 11 August 2017 and stated “Prosecutions under the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956, have been filed against the partners of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in nine companies.”
The minister did not name the nine companies. An RTI query, dated 17 April 2018 by this author sought, from the central public information officer (CPIO), MCA, details of the companies involved, names of the partners involved, amount of violations, Sections of Companies Act, 1956, and any other laws that were violated.
Expectedly, no reply was received even after the expiry of 30 days, the maximum time allowed for disposal of request under Section 7 of the RTI Act. Two e-mails, dated 30th May and 5 June 2018, sent to the under secretary, MCA, to expedite the information, failed to elicit any response.
The applicant (author) then filed the first appeal, on 14 June 2018, under the RTI Act. The reply dated 12 July 2018 was even more callous:
It directed the applicant (author) to make applications to different registrars of companies who had filed the prosecutions against PwC.
Section 6(3) of the RTI Act, 2005, has in such cases put the onus on the public authority to transfer, under intimation to the applicant, the application or appropriate part of it to the concerned public authority within a period of five days from the date of receipt of the application.
Besides being in blatant violation of this provision, the response of the CPIO raised a more fundamental question.
Was the Minister Fed Insufficient Information?
The above-mentioned responses suggest, rather alarmingly, that the MCA and, therefore, the CPIO did not have complete, correct and relevant details when the minister gave the reply in the Lok Sabha. That too in respect of the information originating from their own ministry! This could have far-reaching consequences. It is also highly unlikely that the minister would have taken the information at face value. Searching questions must have been asked by him.
This, therefore, exposes one of the worst kept secrets: Information is available, but is not provided, in blatant violation of the RTI Act.
Famous Nine, Should Have Been Ten At Least
While complete information is still to be received, further prodding has revealed the names of the nine companies with respect to which prosecution has been launched against the partners of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). These are:
Graphite India, Karam Chand Thapar & Bros, Kesoram Industries Ltd, Usha Martin Ltd, Tractors and Farm Equipment Ltd, Satyam Computer Services Ltd, Global Trust Bank, Xerox India Ltd and Religare Finvest Ltd.
Surprisingly DSQ Software, one the first companies to be investigated by the serious frauds investigation office (SFIO) does not figure in this list! Lovelock & Lewes, network firm of PwC, was the auditor of DSQ Software.
SFIO had found DSQ guilty of manipulating share prices and falsification of accounts. The Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had barred DSQ and its promoters for seven years. Did the MCA not find enough grounds to launch prosecution against PwC in this case, despite SEBI’s and SFIO’s findings? Is this yet another case where MCA does not take SFIO
RTI Act in Danger
Multiple attempts are being made to weaken the RTI Act. The least that can be done is to ruthlessly enforce the existing provisions. The order of the Punjab & Haryana High Court referred to above has come as a shot in the arm. Delinquent officers must be taken to task and heavy monetary penalties should be imposed on them.
Getting information under the RTI Act is just the beginning of a meaningful exercise. Unnecessary delays can derail the whole objective.
(Sarvesh Mathur is a senior financial professional, who has earlier worked as CFO of Tata Telecom Ltd and PricewaterhouseCoopers.