New Delhi: Despite repeated attempts by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to deny information about the dignitaries and businessmen who accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi on official trips abroad citing “security grounds”, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed it to provide the “name/list of the private persons (who do not have any connection with the security) and who accompanied the Prime Minister on his international visits at public cost during 2014 to 2017″.
The order of CIC RK Mathur is based on a petition filed by Neeraj Sharma, who, in July last year, had sought the “list of CEOs of private business, owners or partners, private business officials, etc. who accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi to international visits”.
Sharma had also asked for the “selection procedure” involved in shortlisting these business persons. He asked for “a certified copy of the note sheet indicating noting by PM, various officials, emails, letters, directions and/ or instructions issued to the concerned authority or subordinate staff as a follow up action” to the selection of these people being selected to accompany the PM on his foreign tours.
In its response, the PMO’s central public information officer had on September 1, 2017, stated that “while information regarding the PM’s foreign and domestic visits is available on PMO website – http://www.pmindia.gov.in, it may be noted that information regarding members of the delegations accompanying hon’ble PM on domestic and foreign tours cannot be disclosed on security grounds as the same in exempted from disclosure under relevant provisions of RTI Act, 2005″.
Not satisfied with the response, especially since it was silent on the “selection procedure”, Sharma, in his second appeal filed on September 29, 2017, complained that the information sought by him had “not been provided” and that the PMO officials were “deliberately delaying the response to his RTI application by giving an interim reply”.
In his order, Mathur recorded that the appellant had contended that “there is no provision in the RTI Act for giving interim reply”. Further, he noted that Sharma had complained that the “sought for information has not been furnished to him”.
Sharma also stated that if the information was not available with the respondent, they should not have kept the RTI application pending for such a long time.
The chief information commissioner recorded that as per the appellant he had only been provided information on the first point raised by him and not the others.
No information on website
Sharma had submitted that he was informed by PMO that the list of CEOs of private business, owners or partners, private business officials etc who accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his international visits was available on their website. However, Sharma said when he looked up the website, he did not find any such information there.
Manmohan Singh era more transparent
Sharma also stated that he had been informed that the list of members of delegation accompanying the prime minister on domestic and foreign tours cannot be disclosed on security grounds as the same is exempt under section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. However, he said the same information was available on the website during the tenure of former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Moreover, Sharma said he had also not been provided information on the procedure for selection of the delegation. He insisted that section 8(1)(a) is not applicable in this matter as no tenable reasons of denial had been given by the respondent.
PMO’s contradictory views
In its response, PMO had stated that the delegation members are seen on TV channels and their names are mentioned in newspapers during the visit. At this, Sharma had asked that if the delegates can be seen on the media, what are the security concerns?
Sharma also stated that the visit of private delegation members is paid for through public money. Hence, their names and the procedure for their selection should be disclosed and be available in the public domain. He also clarified that he is not seeking details of the full delegation, including the accompanying diplomats and the personnel of the Special Protection Group.
In light of all these facts, the CIC upheld Sharma’s plea and ordered that the PMO provide him the list of “private persons (who do not have any connection with the security)” and that the action be taken within 30 days of receipt of the order.