New Delhi: A day before he retires as Central Information Commissioner, M. Sridhar Acharyulu said that his conscience was a “guiding factor and basis” for a recent landmark judgment – seeking the RBI’s compliance with the Right to Information Act, and directing it to answer about willful defaulters of loans.
In a letter to Chief Information Commissioner R.K. Mathur, Acharyulu referred to “observations” made by Mathur against him on November 8 in which he was accused of being in “violation of unwritten protocol” on transfer of appeals. This, according to him, put another information commissioner (IC) in an “embarrassing position”, while also having a “difference of opinion” with a division bench on the same matter.
‘CIC should have raised similar concerns against non-compliance of its orders by RBI’
Acharyulu wrote back saying while he has a “duty to explain” his actions, the CIC should have raised similar concerns when “the complaint of [former IC] Shailesh Gandhi, against non-compliance of his orders by the RBI, in spite of SC’s confirmation, was dismissed by the Commission on the excuse that it was not based on an RTI application”.
He said the fact that an RTI application from 2011 was the basis of the litigation that reached all the way to the Supreme Court was “simply ignored”. Emboldened by the CIC’s squeamish approach, “the RBI declared it as a policy not to disclose defaulters list and inspection reports in spite of the Supreme Court’s directions,” Acharyulu lamented.
While another opportunity was accorded to the Commission to secure compliance, it too, was lost on grounds of a pending PIL. “When I found a second appeal containing similar requests for information from [the] RBI, I directed it to comply with 11 orders of CIC as confirmed by the Supreme Court. I do not understand why my action should lead to such remarks,” he exclaimed.
‘CIC should check declaration of RBI as it has refused to honour SC directions’
Acharyulu, whose retirement would take the number of vacancies in the Commission up to five, also passed on a nugget of advice to Mathur in his letter:
“The CIC should not be ignorant of the fact that RBI’s arguments against disclosure were specifically rejected in writ petitions of 2015 in [the] Jayanti Lal N Mistry case, and that eleven orders of CIC were confirmed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. I think that CIC has the authority to check the 4(1)(b) declaration of RBI, wherein RBI stated that it will not disclose such matters, even after directions of the Hon. Supreme Court”.
An author of 30 books on law and journalism and a former professor of law at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Acharyulu also asked if “unwritten protocols override written text of law and the Supreme Court’s judgment?”
‘Commission should have filed contempt of court against RBI’
Elaborating on the issue, he wrote to Mathur that “CIC should have taken all steps to enforce its orders, including filing of a complaint for contempt of court in such cases”.
Coming to the specifics of the RBI case, he said, “It’s worth mentioning here that we [CIC] do not have any legal duty to abet in any manner the concealment of names of wilful defaulters. For the record, the defaulters include those who did not pay back Rs. 9.5 lakh crore of public money to Indian banks as on June 2017.” He said these defaulters included 9,000 account holders who wilfully did not pay back Rs 1.1 lakh crore of public money.
Questioning the logic behind the soft stance of the Commission on the issue, he further asked:
“Are we under oath to help in the concealment of details of those who thrive on fraud despite the knowledge that 3 lakh farmers committed suicide across the country as they could not repay small amounts of loans? Not only the constitution, but also my conscience is the guiding factor and basis for my order in this case.”.
‘Faith of people in RTI Act and Commission should be reinforced’
Acharyulu finally appealed to the Commission to initiate steps towards implementing the orders of Gandhi, as confirmed by the apex court, “so that the faith of our people in the RTI Act and this institution stands reinforced”.
He also responded to the “observations” made against him. On the issue of his not sending the appeal to another IC, he said, “If an appeal contains points pertaining to two different public authorities, it was never split into two and given to two different ICs. I did not choose this appeal; it came to me in routine”.
‘Duty of Commissioners to implement RTI Act, inform the people’
On his actions leading to an “embarrassing position” being created, he reaffirmed that the “information commissioner’s primary duty is to uphold and implement the RTI Act, which was being violated by important public authorities like RBI.” Acharyulu quipped that “ the entire Commission should feel embarrassed when its order is not being complied with like this”.
As for the charge that a division bench had earlier ruled differently, he insisted that “the two-IC-bench did not decide the matter at all. It was simply adjourned indefinitely. There was neither ruling nor direction. It was an adjournment to wait for final decision of Supreme Court”.
Finally, responding to the gag order from Mathur that there is “no need to speak to the media, when a show cause notice is pending”, Acharyulu replied by saying, “speaking to the media to explain a legal position about disclosure of wilful defaulters is perfectly legal, proper and required […] to clear the doubts is an ethical exercise in pursuance of transparency. We have a duty to inform the people”.