In an order that ran contrary to his predecessor Satyananda Mishra’s ruling that expenditure incurred on VVIP visits be disclosed in larger public interest, the Chief Information Commissioner R.K. Mathur on Thursday ruled that the procedure involved in calculating the cost of foreign travel by the prime minister need not be disclosed due to “important security concerns.”
The case pertaining to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign travel by Air India had come into the limelight when it was revealed that Modi owed Rs 134 crore to the national carrier for the ten chartered flights he took between June and December 2015. It was revealed that even though Air India had raised the invoices for all these trips, the bills had not been cleared promptly.
In his petition, RTI activist Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh K. Batra had also reflected on how such delays were impacting the balance sheets and operations of Air India stating that “the airline reported an operating loss of Rs 2,636.10 crore in 2014/15 and lags the targeted financial parameters laid down in the turnaround plan drawn up in 2012 when it got a bailout package of Rs 30,000 crore.”
During the last hearing in the case on January 3, Mathur had heard both the appellant and the RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, who had assisted him in the argument. The Central Information Commission (CIC) had also indicated that it might issue some recommendations in order to improve transparency.
However, the order, which came nearly ten days later, did not include any recommendations. Disposing the petition made by Batra, the CIC observed that “the information sought by the appellant falls under the category, the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India and security interests of the state, and hence attracts the provision of section g (l)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
Mathur also held that the “Commission is of the view that the prime minister’s security inter alia involves national security and disclosure of travel arrangements of the PM, whether foreign or domestic, involve important security concerns.”
Noting that Batra had repeatedly stressed on timely payment of bills for chartered flights to Air India and on the institution of suitable internal guidelines to facilitate timely payments, the CIC only directed the prime minister to inform him of the date of receipt and sanction of bills of prime minister of Bhutan’s visit on June 15-16, 2014.
Batra had filed the RTI application on August 14, 2015, seeking information on details of expenses incurred on air travel in respect of the foreign visits of Prime Minister Modi and the former prime ministers and then laid down the instructions, process, procedure and steps involved in chartering flights for PM’s foreign visits. He had also sought details of the filing of ‘flight returns’, the raising of bills or invoices, clearing of bills on completion of the visit and the copy of bills.
Batra had stated that the case involved substantive public interest as the bailout amount – which reportedly was in thousands of crores – being given to Air India was drawn out of the government exchequer and was the money of the taxpayers.
More than a year after filing the application, Batra said the PMO website on September 13, 2016, was still showing that the bills were under process for payment or have not been received for journeys undertaken by the prime minister between June 15, 2014, and September 8, 2016. As such, Batra demanded that there was a need for reforms and for understanding the causes of long delays in payments to Air India.
During the course of the proceedings, Batra noted that after 36 days of filing the application, he had received an interim reply on September 18, 2015, from the CPIO in PMO stating that the information will be sent as soon as input was received from the office.
However, after he did not receive information from the PMO, he filed the first appeal on October 6, 2015. The first appeal appellate on November 3 directed the CPIO to provide the information within ten working days. But since no information was received, Batra filed a complaint before the CIC on December 21, 2015. He also charged that his request for inspection of files had not been considered by the PMO.
In his complaint, Batra accused the PMO of transferring the application to the foreign secretary, Ministry of External Affairs on December 23, 2015, after a delay of four months, and charged that such a delay constituted gross negligence on the part of the respondent in dealing with the RTI application.
Batra also claimed that the PMO tried to answer the RTI application by stating that the sought information was exempted from disclosure under clause (g) of Section 8(1) of the RTI Act. He said he was informed by the MEA on February 29, 2016, that after the completion of the visit of the prime minister, the bills received were forwarded to PMO for settlement.
The RTI activist said since this information was always available with the PMO, the latter must be penalised for withholding it and sought a token rupee one compensation for the mental agony, harassment suffered and expenses incurred due to the delay.
As for the MEA, Batra said it had also noted in its response that the matter falls under the category where the disclosure of the information would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India and security interests of the state and hence attract the provision of section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. The MEA also denied access to the files to Batra citing security concerns.
After this, Batra contended before the commission that the travel bills and process for settlement of the same did not contain details of security. “Therefore, the security reason does not arise in providing the requisite information in the public interest,” he had argued.
Taking these arguments into consideration, the commission had in October 2016 observed that “without perusal of the file, it cannot be decided that whether the sought for information contains security-related information” and had directed the PMO to produce one representative file before the commission. But in the final order, it allowed the PMO to not reveal any details.
Responding to the development, Batra said “I am not only surprised by the commission’s order but find it shocking. In my complaint, I had clearly brought out the poor implementation of transparency law by CPIO of PMO. In support of this argument, other RTI cases where information was not provided even after a year were mentioned. That the case is of very large public interest was proved beyond doubt by even quoting responses given to questions raised in the parliament.”
Batra said what surprised him the most was that the commission did not “make recommendations for need of reforms in process of clearance of bills of chartered flights as mentioned during hearing”.
“I wonder if this is the dead end for the transparency regime,” he quipped.