Opinion asked by a querist on the application of the ratio in the case of Girish Ramchandra Deshpande Versus Central Information Commissioner (Supreme Court).
Ratio: Details disclosed by a person in his income-tax returns are ‘personal information’ which stand exempted from disclosure under clause (j) of section 8(1), unless larger public interest justifies disclosure of such information.
QUERY AS GATHERED FROM THE EMAIL SENT BY THE QUERIST:
Whether A Person Can Refuse To Provide Information Relating To Its ‘Personal’ Income Tax Returns, Financial Statements Etc., If Such Information Is To Be Provided To A Government Body In The Course Of Application For Certain Licenses, Permits, Grants Etc.
Important points relevant to interpretation of the referred case law:
A. Relevant provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005
The preamble to the RTI Act describes the intent of the Legislature to enact the RTI Act. The opening para of the preamble states as follows:“An act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority͙”
2) Definition as contained in Section 2 of the Act
a. Sub-section (f) defines ‘information’ as: “means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, emails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, log books, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force”.
b. Sub-section (j) defines ‘right to information’ as
i. “the right to information accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes the right to-
ii. inspection of work, documents, records;
iii. taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records;
iv. taking certified samples of material;
v. obtaining information in the thrm of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device;
c. Sub-section (n) defines ‘third party’ as “a person other than the citizen making a request for information and includes public authority”
3) Provisions of Section 7(7)
Section 7 – Disposal of request (request for information under the Act)
Sub-section (7) – Before taking any decision under sub-section (1), the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, shall take into consideration the representation made by a third party under Section 11.
4) Provisions of Section 8(1)(j)
Section 8 – Exemption from disclosure of information
Sub-section (1) – Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen;
Clause (j) – “information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information:
Provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”
5) Provisions of Section 7 – Third party information.—
“Sub-section (1): Where a Central Public Information Officer or a State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, intends to disclose any information or record, or part thereof on a request made under this Act, which relates to or has been supplied by a third party and has been treated as confidential by that third party, the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, shall, within five days from the receipt of the request, give a written notice to such third party of the request and of the fact that the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, intends to disclose the information or record, or part thereof, and invite the third party to make a submission in writing or orally, regarding whether the information should be disclosed, and such submission of the third party shall be kept in view while taking a decision about disclosure of information:
Provided that except in the case of trade or commercial secrets protected by law, disclosure may be allowed if the public interest in disclosure outweighs in importance any possible harm or injury to the interests of such third party.”
B. Brief explanation of the relevant case law provided for opinion
The facts of the relevant case law pertain to an applicant seeking information about an officer of a Government authority, which amongst other things contains information about the personal income, gifts and income tax returns of the officer. The application under RTI was rejected by the various authorities under the Act under provisions of Section 8(1)(j). Aggrieved by the orders, the applicant preferred an appeal before the Supreme Court against the orders of the various authorities and appellate authorities under the RTI Act.
The Hon. Justices of the Supreme Court have upheld the orders of the Commissioner and the CIC by stating that the information sought for by the applicant under the RTI Act of the concerned officer is personal in nature and has no relationship to any public activity or interest. The disclosure would also cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of the concerned individual. The need for the disclosure does not also fit in the definition of ‘larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information’.
C. View on the query raised by the querist
a. The basic object of the Right to Information Act, as contained in the Guide on RTI Act, 2005, published by Department of Personnel under Government of India, is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption and make our democracy work for the people in real sense. The Act is a big step forward towards making the citizens informed about the activities of the Government.
b. The right to information governs the manner in which a citizen of India can obtain information from a public authority, which is held by the public authority or which is held under its control.
c. The order passed by the Supreme Court was within the ambit of the provisions of the RTI Act. The facts of the case are clear and there cannot be ambiguous inferences drawn from the order passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
d. The order in the case law does not anywhere state that a citizen of India can interpret the ratio of the case to suit his or her own needs vis-à-vis refusing to provide information in situations mentioned in the next para.
e. When a person is required to submit certain information relating to his personal income or income tax, to an authority or to a body from whom he is seeking certain benefits, licenses, permits etc. and the grant of such benefits, licenses, permits etc. are dependent on the capacity of the applicant, then, such person cannot take cover under the notion that such returns are personal in nature and cannot be parted with.
f. What constitutes public interest or larger public interest as defined in Section 8 of the RTI Act is a decision to be taken by the competent authority and not by a citizen of India.
g. The interpretation of the relevant case law in that context is therefore, in my view, not correct.
( Author is working with Haindaday & Co., Mumbai and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)