New Delhi: With the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) being reticent about the events around demonetisation that was announced late on November 8, 2016 and refusing to part with information about it in response to a query filed under the Right to Information Act, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has asked it to explain how disclosure of some information would “prejudicially affect the economic interests” of the country, as claimed by it.
In a recent order, chief information commissioner R.K. Mathur said “this commission is of the opinion that the respondent should elaborate their reasoning with regard to impact on the economic interest of the country as claimed by them u/Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act.”
The query had been filed by R.L. Kain on November 15, 2016 – exactly a week after demonetisation took place – and he had sought information regarding the approval granted for recording of the prime minister’s speech which was telecast by Doordarshan Kendra on November 8, in which he had spoken about demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. The appellant had also sought a copy of the recorded (unedited) speech made by the prime minister.
Not satisfied with the response he got from the central public information officer (CPIO) on December 21, 2016 and the first appellate authority, Kain had moved the CIC on April 13 seeking the information.
In a hearing before the commission, Kain said the PMO should provide him a certified copy of the approval accorded by the prime minister on the file relating to demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes and a copy of the approval granted for revision of the existing list of the denomination of notes under Section 24 of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 for introduction of the new series of Rs 2,000 notes.
In his petition, he also alleged that these new Rs 2,000 banknotes were flashed by some persons prior to demonetisation and, therefore, an enquiry should be conducted by the RBI in this matter.
‘Why Patel’s signature on new notes when Rajan was still in office?’
Kain alleged that these banknotes carried the signature of the present Reserve Bank of IndiaI governor, Urijit Patel, despite the process of printing these notes having started when his predecessor Raghuram Rajan was still in office.
In his response, the under secretary (RTI) in the PMO, Parveen Kumar, submitted before the commission that some of the requests of the complainant were related to information, disclosure of which may “prejudicially affect the economic interests of the state”. Therefore, he said, this information was exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. Further, he stated that the rest of the requests were in the form of queries which do not fall within the definition of ‘information’ under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act.
On hearing both sides, CIC Mathur said the CPIO of the PMO should elaborate with reasoning how disclosure of information sought would impact the economic interest of the country. He also directed that all the CPIOs concerned holding the records should present themselves before the commission at the next hearing.
Kain had also filed queries with the president’s secretariat, and the commission heard these as well. In one of these petitions, filed on November 28, 2016, the appellant had sought information on “whether all executive power of the Union vests in the president of India under Article 53 and [is] exercised by him directly or through officers subordinate to him. If yes, whether prime minister has communicated to the president his decision of demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 and issue of new bank notes of Rs 2000 which violates section 24 and 25 of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934,” Mathur recorded in his order.
‘No mandatory procedure followed by PM, FM in informing president’
In his plea, Kain charged that “no mandatory procedure was followed by the prime minister, finance minister or by any executive officers and no information appears to have been sent to the president as required by Article 8(a) of the constitution of India but orders were communicated to president,” the CIC recorded, adding that the appellant “wants information as to when the impugned orders were communicated to president or when the prime minister himself went to meet president personally as required by the constitution; what was the reaction of the Hon’ble President of India with regard to violation of mandatory provisions etc.”
‘Whole country affected, 150 died due to demonetisation’
Not satisfied with the response of the CPIO and FAA, Kain had filed a second appeal before the commission on April 13, 2017, seeking information on his query. In the hearing before the commission, he contended that “due to demonetisation, the whole country was affected and 150 persons had died and even then, the respondent has denied the information.”
The complainant stated before the commission that the prime minister must have given a copy of the cabinet decision on demonetisation to the president and that he wanted a copy of that cabinet decision, agenda paper etc. He also claimed that the president’s secretariat had wrongly denied the information under Section 2 (f) of the RTI Act.
‘People being kept in the dark’
Kain also alleged that “the prime minister had forced his own decision of demonetisation on the nation and there was anarchy in the whole country.” He said, by not providing the information, the Centre is keeping the people of India in the dark.
“The complainant further enquired, if the prime minister is taking wrong decisions, who will restrain him?” CIC Mathur recorded in his order.
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‘Cabinet papers/decision are secret documents’
In his response, deputy secretary (RTI section) in the president’s secretariat. J.G. Subramanian, said the information sought by the complainant was in the nature of queries and the RTI Act does not cast any obligation on any public authority to answer queries. Moreover, he insisted that “cabinet papers/decision are secret documents and the same cannot be disclosed.”
The commission, however, held that the queries sought are covered within the meaning of ‘information’ under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act and, therefore, directed the president’s secretariat to give a categorical reply on each point of the RTI application to the appellant. However, it also noted that if information is exempted, then the respondent is free to exercise the exemption clause.
In another query filed with the president’s secretariat on December 13, 2016, Kain had sought a copy of the decision of council of ministers, communicated mandatorily to the president either by the prime minister or the finance minister or the cabinet secretariat, relating to demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 bank notes under Article 78 (a) of the constitution. He had also sought details of the communication.
Not satisfied with the response of the CPIO and the FAA, he had approached the commission on April 13, 2017. In the hearing earlier this month, Kain said he had sought information on 13 points which was available with the respondent but they had transferred it to the department of economic affairs.
‘As president, Pratibha Patil had recommended printing Dr Ambedkar’s photo on currency notes’
Mathur recorded in his order that “the complainant stated that based on a memorandum submitted by him, the then president Pratibha Patil had recommended considering printing the photo of Dr B.R. Ambedkar on the currency notes. The complainant stated that the Reserve Bank of India had formed a high level steering committee to consider this matter. But after that no information has been provided. The complainant stated that report of the committee has not been provided to him or what action has been taken. The complainant stated that officers are not discharging their duties in giving advice to the president and till date the photo of Dr. Ambedkar has not been printed on the currency notes.”
However, the CPIO contended that the sought for information was not available with president’s secretariat and that is why the query had been sent to the department of economic affairs. The commission in this matter said its intervention was not required in the matter.