The official line seems to be, ‘Show me your money but I won’t show you my records’.
New Delhi: While the Reserve Bank of India has been forthcoming in placing on its website the minutes of meetings of all committees that provide it with advice, an RTI activist has accused it of deliberately withholding information on the recent demonetisation exercise. Seen against the backdrop of a top finance ministry official – secretary, department of economic affairs, Shaktikanta Das – stating that there was no need to go into the process of decision-making regarding the November 8 demonetisation drive, many believe that in handling this issue the Narendra Modi government has deviated from its stated position on transparency and accountability.
RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative filed an RTI application with the DEA on November 14, within a week of the demonetisation announcement, seeking copies of the cabinet note that was approved by the Union cabinet regarding the decision to demonetise currency notes of Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 500 denomination.
Much to his disappointment, Nayak did not receive any reply from the chief public information officer, DEA even after 40 days. Since, no response within 30 days is treated as a refusal to disclose the requested information under Section 7(2) of the RTI Act, he has subsequently dispatched an appeal with the first appellate authority of the DEA.
Nayak said the lack of response from the CPIO at the DEA was not surprising as the “the decision to maintain undue secrecy about the demonetisation appears to be sanctioned at the highest level of the bureaucracy in that department”.
Eager to extract some information on the issue, Nayak had also filed a separate application with the Reserve Bank of India in which he had sought copies of the minutes of all board meetings of the RBI from the date on which the recommendation to demonetise the Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 500 currency notes was taken. He had also asked for all communication sent in this regard to the government, representations received from any person or organisation suggesting demonetisation and all file notings on this subject.
Nayak said that while some think tanks had recommended various ways of tackling the problem of black money, including demonetisation, the course of action the government eventually followed was not what they had recommended and this is what prompted him to file his application.
However, to his dismay, the RBI rejected access to its board meeting minutes and recommendations made to the government and related file notings citing Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. As for representations received from the public, the CPIO has invoked Section 7(9) saying that the information cannot be provided as it would lead to disproportionate diversion of resources of the organisation.
Since there are eight grounds for rejecting access to information under Section 8(1)(a), namely, sovereignty and territorial integrity, strategic, scientific, economic, security and defence interests of the state, relations with foreign states and incitement to an offence, Nayak said that “the CPIO seems to imply that all of them are equally applicable to the queries in the RTI application… There is no detailed reasoning as to how Section 8(1)(a) is applicable in the CPIO’s decision.”
Holding out that denial of information regarding representations received from the public was also unlawful under Section 7(9) of the Act, Nayak said a request can only be rejected under reasons specified in Sections 8 and 9 since Section 7(9) is a facilitating clause under which information must be provided in the form in which it was sought unless there is disproportionate diversion of resources or danger to the safety and preservation of the record.
Noting how the minutes of the meeting of the committee on monetary policy, held recently on December 21, have been proactively disclosed on the RBI website, Nayak questioned why the central bank was withholding information on the minutes of the board meeting where the decision was taken to recommend demonetisation of the high value currency notes. Obviously, both the government and the RBI must be having sufficient reasons to hide this vital information.
This secrecy, however, runs contrary to the loud proclamations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding his commitment to the spirit of transparency and accountability. At the inauguration of the 10th Annual RTI Convention in October 2015, he had even said that people should not only have the right to seek copies of official records under RTI, but also demand accountability for the decisions taken by public authorities. “It is sad that the PM’s vision of transparency is not shared by the officers who work under him. I was not even questioning the wisdom of the decision. Instead I had sought only copies of official records containing details of the decision making process. The RTI Act requires that such information be made public,” said Nayak, pointing to how a wide chasm now exists between what the government says and does.
“When the DEA and RBI want every citizen of the country to come clean (in the name of combating black money, corruption and fake currency notes), their reluctance to become equally transparent and accountable is unjustified, to the say the very least,” says Nayak.