In the present case, there was no material to indicate that there was any corruption on the part of the income tax authorities which led to a justifiable apprehension that the said authorities were not performing their function diligently. In any event, the CIC has not found that the proceedings relating to assessment were not being conducted in accordance with law and/or required the intervention of the respondent. Assessment proceedings are quasi-judicial proceedings where assessee has to produce material to substantiate their return of income. Income tax has to be assessed by the income tax authorities strictly in accordance with the Income Tax Act, 1961 and based on the information sought by them. In the present case, the respondent wants to process the information to assist and support the role of an Assessing Officer. This has a propensity of interfering in the assessment proceedings and thus, cannot be considered to be in larger public interest. The CIC had proceeded on the basis that the income tax authorities should disclose information to informers of income tax departments to enable them to bring instances of tax evasion to the notice of income tax authorities. In my view, this reasoning is flawed as it would tend to subvert the assessment process rather than aid it. If this idea is carried to its logical end, it would enable several busy bodies to interfere in assessment proceedings and throw up their interpretation of law and facts as to how an assessment ought to be carried out. The propensity of this to multiply litigation cannot be underestimated. Further, the proposition that unrelated parties could intervene in assessment proceedings is wholly alien to the 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 an additional dimension to the assessment proceedings.
The Supreme Court in Bihar Public Service Commission v. Saiyed Hussain Abbas Rizwi: (2012) 13 SCC 61 held that the statutory exemption provided under Section 8 of the Act is the rule and only in exceptional circumstances of larger public interest the information would be disclosed. It was also held that ‘public purpose’ needs to be interpreted in the strict sense and public interest has to be construed keeping in mind the balance between right to privacy and right to information. The relevant extract from the said judgment is quoted below:
“21……. Another very significant provision of the Act is Section 8(1)(j). In terms of this provision, 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 would fall within the exempted category, unless the authority concerned is satisfied that larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information. It is, therefore, to be understood clearly that it is a statutory exemption which must operate as a rule and only in exceptional cases would disclosure be permitted, that too, for reasons to be recorded demonstrating satisfaction to the test of larger public interest. It will not be in consonance with the spirit of these provisions, if in a mechanical manner, directions are passed by the appropriate authority to disclose information which may be protected in terms of the above provisions. All information which has come to the notice of or on record of a person holding fiduciary relationship with another and but for such capacity, such information would not have been provided to that authority, would normally need to be protected and would not be open to disclosure keeping the higher standards of integrity and confidentiality of such relationship. Such exemption would be available to such authority or department.
22. The expression “public interest”has to be understood in its true connotation so as to give complete meaning to the relevant provisions of the Act. The expression “public interest”must be viewed in its strict sense with all its exceptions so as to justify denial of a statutory exemption in terms of the Act. In its common parlance, the expression “public interest”, like “public purpose”, is not capable of any precise definition. It does not have a rigid meaning, is elastic and takes its colour from the statute in which it occurs, the concept varying with time and state of society and its needs (State of Bihar v. Kameshwar
Singh [AIR 1952 SC 252] ). It also means the general welfare of the public that warrants recognition and protection; something in which the public as a whole has a stake [Black’s Law Dictionary (8th Edn.)].
23. The satisfaction has to be arrived at by the authorities objectively and the consequences of such disclosure have to be weighed with regard to the circumstances of a given case. The decision has to be based on objective satisfaction recorded for ensuring that larger public interest outweighs unwarranted invasion of privacy or other factors stated in the provision. Certain matters, particularly in relation to appointment, are required to be dealt with great confidentiality. The information may come to knowledge of the authority as a result of disclosure by others who give that information in confidence and with complete faith, integrity and fidelity. Secrecy of such information shall be maintained, thus, bringing it within the ambit of fiduciary capacity. Similarly, there may be cases where the disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or interest or it may even cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of the individual. All these protections have to be given their due implementation as they spring from statutory exemptions. It is not a decision simpliciter between private interest and public interest. It is a matter where a constitutional protection is available to a person with regard to the right to privacy. Thus, the public interest has to be construed while keeping in mind the balance factor between right to privacy and right to information with the purpose sought to be achieved and the purpose that would be served in the larger public interest, particularly when both these rights emerge from the constitutional values under the Constitution of India.”
Applying the aforesaid judgment to the facts of this case, it is apparent that disclosure of information as directed has no discernable element of larger public interest.