Term ‘wholly charitable or religious’ u/s 11 of I-T Act : CBDT’s opinion sought under RTI Act – Authorities not required to provide relevant extracts as it is for appellant to identify it from large documents : CIC

NEW DELHI, JAN 26, 2008 : THE variety of information which is nowadays being sought under the RTI Act has indeed grown in quality and magnitude. One such quality question was volleyed at the CBDT which is related to Sec 11 of the Income Tax Act.

The applicant in his application states,

As you know, Section 11 of the Income Tax Act, 1961, speaks of tax exemption to wholly charitable or religious trusts. Circular: No.100 [F.No.195/1/ 72-IT(A-I) ], dated 24-1-1973 issued by the Board states that : `Section 11 required 99 per cent of the income of a charitable and religious trust to be applied for religious and charitable purposes to be entitled to the exemption under the said section’.

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However, some Assessing Officers in Kerala are found to levy Income Tax on trusts wholly for `charitable AND religious’ purposes under the argument that the term `wholly charitable or religious’ in Section 11 means `wholly charitable’ or `wholly religious’ and a trust being wholly for charitable `AND’ religious purposes does not qualify for exemption u/s 11.

But the CPIO of the BDT informed him that since what he was asking through his RTI-application amounted to eliciting the public authority’s opinion about certain categories of tax liability, it was not liable to be disclosed as it was not covered by the definition of `information’ under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act.

However, the AA remitted the issue to the CPIO observing that what he understood was not what the appellant was seeking. The AA clarified that the appellant does not seek to have his opinion but wishes to have “extracts of any opinion or advice on such subject in the records of the board”. The AA concluded that `opinions’ and `advices’ included in the files and records of a public authority were `information’ in terms of Section 2(f) of the RTI Act.

Then the CPIO provided a copy of the opinion of Standing Counsel which was provided to the CIT, Kannur and a copy of the Circular No 100. But the appellant filed an appeal pleading that the information provided to him referred to “PARTLY charitable and religious trusts and not WHOLLY charitable and religious trusts”, which was actually the question raised by the appellant.

The issue finally reached the CIC where the relevant question was reframed as whether the term “taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records” appearing in 2(j)(ii) of the RTI Act
entitles an applicant to receive “relevant extracts” of documents and records, etc. According to the appellant, his right to take extract can be translated into meaningful action only when the public authority identifies the relevanand transmits the same to the appellant.

The CIC noted that the appellant’s argument is bereft of merit. The appellant has imported into the wording of Section 2(j)(ii) an adjective `relevant’ before `extracts’, which does not appear in the Act. The AA has very rightly pointed out that right to take extracts of a document implies that it is for the appellant to identify the extracts which he wishes to have from the public authority and not the other way around. Any process of identifying an extract from a larger document for the benefit of an applicant in itself amounts to rendering an opinion and offering an interpretation, which it has been held in the earlier decisions of the Commission, does not comprise `information’ in terms of Section 2(f) of the RTI Act. It also needs to be emphasized here that a circular or a clarification issued by a competent authority about a legal matter, such as provisions of tax laws, is itself a public document. When questions are asked about such a document, it would suffice if the public authority / the CPIO informed the appellant as to where that document or circular could be had. In the alternative, they may even helpfully supply a copy of that public document / circular to the appellant. But to expect that a public authority would identify the extracts of the circular relevant to the appellant’s RTI-queries for the benefit of appellant would amount to giving to him the public authority’s interpretation of Income Tax Laws / instructions, which the appellant is not authorized to receive, nor is the respondent obliged to provide, under the provisions of the RTI Act.

In another case – Bhagat Singh Vs Delhi Police, the CIC had held that abbreviating an information for the sake of an appellant amounts to interpreting that information.

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