Informers cannot misuse RTI
It could be a world record, because an appellant demanded unimaginably huge information. Mr G wanted all the records available with the Income tax...
It could be a world record, because an appellant demanded unimaginably huge information. Mr G wanted all the records available with the Income tax department in respect of several assessees for various assessment years, including inspection of all records, the copies of the documents mentioned at the time of inspection, the officers from assessing officers to CCIT, who are the officers to take action on "Tax Evasion Petition" given by him from 1/8/2003 till date, etc.
Indiscriminate and impractical demands or directions under the RTI Act for disclosure of all and sundry information (unrelated to transparency and accountability in the functioning of public authorities and eradication of corruption) would be counterproductive as it will adversely affect the efficiency of the administration and result in the executive getting bogged down with the non-productive work of collecting and furnishing information. The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused
The length and breadth of information he sought includes a lot about all officers working in all wings of Income Tax Offices in Delhi, Central Delhi, Chandigarh & Mumbai, of whom he gave 101 names, besides assets and ITRs of their spouses and dependents. The range is also very huge. He wants reports for all the years till ‘the date of answering’. It takes decades for any office to compile this information.
This is only from one RTI application. He filed several such applications. He claimed to be ‘informer’ and wanted about assets statements of officers listed by civil list number and designation, along with assets statements of their spouse and person dependent on them for last ten years, details of immoveable assets acquired by them in the last ten years along with their sources.
This demand does not reflect any compelling public interest in disclosure. Hence, under section 8(1)(j) information can be denied. Most of G’s RTI applications and appeals are about various kinds of information of Naresh Trehan, his firms, companies and partners.
He filed number of such applications earlier also. Then Naresh Trehan on behalf of Escorts and AAA Portfolio Pvt Lmt filed several writ petitions against this applicant. The CPIO of IT department also filed a Writ Petition. For example, Naresh Trehan (W.P.(C) 85/2010 & CM Nos. 156/2010 & 5560 /2011), In eight writ petitions, they challenged the common order of CIC dated 14-12-2009 directing inspection of records and other information including Income Tax returns to G.
As usual G was asking for all records available with IT department with respect to 8 assesses. When the I-T department served notices under S. 11(2) of the RTI Act, assessees raised objections. Justice Vibhu Bakhru of Delhi High Court concluded that the CIC has misdirected to assume that there was some public interest in demanding such huge information.
High court held that there was no material to indicate that there was any corruption on the part of I-T Authorities that led to a justifiable apprehension that the said authorities were not performing their function diligently.
The CIC had not found the assessment proceedings were not being conducted in accordance with the law. G wanted to process the information to assist and support the role an Assessing Officer. This has a propensity of interfering in the assessment proceedings, hence cannot be considered to be in larger public interest.
The CIC had proceeded on the basis that disclosure would enable to bring the instances of tax evasion to the notice of I-T authorities. Justice Bakhru opined this reason was flawed as it would tend to subvert the assessment process rather than aid it.
Further, the proposition that unrelated parties could intervene in assessment proceedings is absolutely alien to Income Tax Act, 1961. The income tax returns and information are provided in aid of the proceedings that are conducted under that Act and there is no scope for enhancing or providing for and additional dimension to the assessment proceedings.
The Delhi High Court finally concluded that the disclosure of information has no discernable element of larger public interest and set aside the order of CIC. Most of G’s RTI applications were rejected because of stay by the Delhi High Court. That stay order was confirmed on merits in its final decision dated 24-11-2014.
As pointed out by the Delhi High Court, the appellant couldn’t present anything in support of his claim of larger public interest in disclosure of Income Tax returns and assessment related information. Moreover, repeated demands of information against Naresh Trehan and Escorts etc reflect the undue enthusiasm of the appellant to interfere with the process of assessment of Tax to be paid by Escorts, which is the statutory function of Public Authority and Income Tax Act doesn’t permit interference by any other person.
Income tax returns are held to be personal information of third parties squarely attracting S. 8(1)(j) of RTI Act. However, this section along with S. 11(1) & S. 8(2) provided for exception in case of larger public interest. The appellant should have shown public interest in his demand.
The Bombay High Court in Writ Petition No. 8753 of 2013 Shailesh Gandhi v CIC held that since the right to privacy has been recognised as a fundamental right to which a citizen is entitled to, therefore, unless the condition mentioned in Section 8(1)(j) is satisfied, the information cannot be provided… the burden on the applicant is much more onerous than may be a routine case.
The appellant failed to establish Public interest while the Public Authority Successfully shown that that there was no public interest. The Commission concludes that G couldn’t show any public interest apparently motivated by some other interest and being a professional ‘informer’ he might have been interested in increasing his income by means of securing ‘incentive’ by giving Tax Evasion information. G was not just exercising his right to information. G cannot be encouraged to misuse RTI.
Indiscriminate demand of voluminous information is not only abuse of right by the petitioner but also threatens the core function of the public authority. It is relevant to refer to what the Supreme Court in CBSE vs. Aditya Bandopadhyay, (2011) 8 SCC 497,said such frivolous applicants:
67. Indiscriminate and impractical demands or directions under the RTI Act for disclosure of all and sundry information (unrelated to transparency and accountability in the functioning of public authorities and eradication of corruption) would be counterproductive as it will adversely affect the efficiency of the administration and result in the executive getting bogged down with the non-productive work of collecting and furnishing information.
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.”
The CIC Bench cannot encourage such repetitions and multiple applications against some individuals or targeting certain companies. Appellant shall not file repeat such RTI requests, and if filed, they could be rejected.
Those who claim to be ‘informer’ cannot misuse the RTI Act and IT Act, and if they misuse, they should not be considered as deserving to receive the incentives from tax-payer’s money. The Bench recommends the respondent authority to take necessary measures to prevent misuse of RTI and IT Act provisions by such ‘informers’ by amending their policy to pay incentives to ‘informer’. (based on decision of CIC Bench of Sri Basanth Seth and Sridhar Acharyulu in CIC/DS/A/2011/002965 in August 2016)