The Modi Government Is Hiding Information About Black Money Inside a Black Hole

The finance ministry and a national public finance institute under its control have refused to give copies of research reports on black money sought under the RTI.

The SIT on black money must be opened to greater public scrutiny. Credit: Reuters

The SIT on black money must be opened to greater public scrutiny. Credit: Reuters

During his reply on the motion of thanks to the address of the president of India in the Lok Sabha on February 7, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared his government’s efforts to curb corruption and flush out black money with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – the nation-wide mission launched to clean up cities, towns, villages and roads, build community toilets and end the practice of open defecation. He drew attention once again to his government’s emphasis on ‘transparency in governance’.

But despite the clear signals from the topmost level of the government, key departments and agencies are failing to abide by this important principle.

The Ministry of Finance and one national public finance institute under its control have both refused to reveal research reports on black money in the domestic sector under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act).

More interestingly, the special investigation team (SIT) on black money has claimed that it does not have a copy of the study reports on the nature and volume of black money in India prepared by at least three academic institutions.

Neither the finance ministry nor the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), which also responded to the same information request, are on the same page as to why this report cannot be made public. While the ministry is claiming parliamentary privilege over these reports, NIPFP is taking refuge under a confidentiality agreement it signed with the finance ministry.

Response of the black money SIT

In October 2017, around the 12th anniversary of the RTI Act, the Central Information Commission (CIC) declared, in response to my appeal, that the SIT on black money was a public authority under the RTI Act. In December, I submitted another RTI application to the SIT, seeking copies of all study reports prepared by the NIPFP, the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the National Institute of Financial Management “on the subject of ‘quantum of black money’ and received by the SIT office till date”. I also asked for the “total number of reports submitted by the SIT to the Supreme Court till date, along with their copies.

The central public information officer (CPIO) of the SIT replied that his office did not have any of the study reports on black money prepared by the NIPFP, NCAER and NIFM (see page 5 of the document below). So, he transferred that portion of the RTI application to these three institutes. As regards queries four and five of my RTI application, the CPIO merely replied that five reports on black money had been submitted to the Supreme Court of India in an ongoing case.

He conveniently did not respond to the request for a copy of these reports. So it was neither rejection of the request nor intention to disclose from the office of the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which is one of the constituting elements of the SIT (see pages 5-6 of the document below). Incidentally, the ED is an exempt organisation under Section 24 of the RTI Act. However, the exemption does not extend to information pertaining to allegations of corruption or human rights violations.

Two days after the Prime Minister compared his government’s efforts to flush out black money with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the investigation wing-I of the department of revenue claimed that the academic study reports on black money submitted by NIPFP, NCAER and NIFM were covered by parliamentary privilege under Section 8(1)(c) of the RTI Act and hence could not be disclosed (see page 7 of the document below).

As regards the SIT reports submitted to the apex court, the CPIO claimed that his office did not have a copy and transferred that portion of the RTI application back to the CPIO of the SIT.

Apart from the SIT, I sent queries related to unearthing black money to NIPFP and two other public authorities and received different replies from each. The RTI application and the replies received are in the attachment.

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Strangely, the Foreign Tax and Tax Research-I division of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) was the first to respond in January 2018 claiming that the information sought did not pertain to their office (see page 3 of the document below). The first three queries were transferred to the department of economic affairs and the remaining were sent to the investigation division of the department of revenue. My RTI application was primarily about action taken in India (and not abroad) to inquire or investigate the phenomenon of black money accumulation. It is not clear why the RTI application was transferred to them in the first place.

The Investigation Division-IV of the Department of Revenue replied that they were only concerned with investigation of tax evasion petitions and transferred the RTI application to the Investigation Division-I of the same department. By this reckoning, perhaps black money has not yet become the subject of any tax evasion petition.

NIPFP’s RTI reply

Meanwhile, the NIPFP replied that their report on black money was a classified document and confidential under the terms of the agreement with the department of revenue. So it cannot be disclosed under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. In the matter of Ram Jethmalani & Ors vs Union of India & Ors. (known as the black money case) the Supreme Court had rejected the then UPA government’s claim that a confidentiality agreement contained in a double tax avoidance treaty with a foreign country should supersede the citizens’ right to know. Public authorities are now citing confidentiality clauses in domestic agreements to reject access to information. There is no such ground under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act either.

So it looks like the prime minister’s vision of transparency has not penetrated deep enough into the bureaucracy which does not have a consensus view on why the study reports on black money cannot be made public. Instead they are making desperate efforts to overstretch the exemption clauses to deny access to information.

Even more strange is the claim of parliamentary privilege to withhold access to the academic study reports. According to the proviso under Section 8(1) of the RTI Act, information that cannot be denied to Parliament or a state legislature cannot be denied to a citizen under the RTI Act. It is not clear how parliamentary privilege will be affected by disclosing an academic study report. NCAER and NIFM are yet to send a reply to the RTI application transferred to them.

So while the NDA’s electoral promise of depositing Rs 15 lakh of recovered black money in every citizen’s bank account is long forgotten, detailed information about the action taken to flush out black money is also not available to citizens. Further, not only is the money black, but information about studies undertaken and action taken is also being black-holed.

Meanwhile, as popular theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking demonstrated that black holes have event horizons and some subatomic particles apparently radiate outwards while others are sucked in to oblivion, one of NIPFP’s alleged study reports on black money is accessible on the website of a semi-academic journal. How did it appear there despite the confidentiality agreement is a mystery, perhaps lurking inside another blackhole.

Black money study reports and RTI documents by The Wire on Scribd

Venkatesh Nayak is programme coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi