Electoral Bonds: 'No Public Interest' in Revealing Details of Political Donors, Says Top RTI Body

While dismissing an appeal, the statutory body also held that revealing the details of donors would violate the provisions of the Right to Information Act.

New Delhi: In a significant ruling, the Central Information Commission has held that disclosing the identities of the electoral bond scheme donors is not in the public interest.

The statutory body for the implementation for the RTI Act also held that revealing the details of donors would violate the provisions of the Right to Information Act, the Indian Express reported.

While dismissing an appeal by Maharashtra-based activist Vihar Durve, who had sought information about scheme donors, the information commissioner Suresh Chandra said that “there appears to be no larger public interest overriding the right of privacy of the donors and donees concerned”.

The information commissioner further held that the “disclosure of names of donors and the donees may be in contravention of provisions contained in section 8 (1) (e) ( j ) of the RTI Act itself, which exempt a public authority to give a citizen information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship, unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrant the disclosure of such information”.

The activist said that the CIC order was as an “unreasoned” one as it does not mention objections by the Election Commission, Reserve Bank of India or law ministry.

The electoral bonds scheme was notified by the Centre on January 2, 2018, to purportedly regulate unaccounted money flowing into the political system and to improve financial transparency. Under the scheme, citizens and corporations can buy anonymous bonds or monetary instruments from the State Bank of India (SBI) and donate them to a political party, who can then redeem them for money.

Also read: ‘Corruption-Free India’ Under BJP Government Is Just a Sham

The Central Information Commission in January had directed the Centre to reveal the names of electoral bond scheme donors who wanted their identities to remain confidential.

Durve, the activist in the case, had first sought information in this regard from SBI’s central public information officer on June 16, 2018. He then appealed to the First Appellate Authority (FAA) with the bank, after he was dissatisfied by the CPIO’s reply who also ruled that the “information related to electoral bonds issued to political parties was held by the SBI in fiduciary capacity” and that the names of the donors could not be disclosed as these fell in the bracket of third party information.

While sharing information on the total number of bonds issued in the 2018-20 period, the FAA also had similar observations to make over his refusal to share party-wise details of beneficiaries.

Transparency activists have lamented that the electoral bonds scheme is opaque, potentially promotes the circulation of black money and have expressed disappointment over the Supreme Court’s decision to not grant an interim stay on the electoral bonds scheme.

The use of big money was evident most recently in the Bihar assembly elections when a Right to Information query revealed that a total of 279 bonds of Rs 1 crore were sold during the sale period from October 19 to 28.

Ahead of the Delhi assembly elections, 139 electoral bonds worth Rs 81.67 crore were sold by the SBI, an RTI query revealed.

The Election Commission has previously criticised the electoral bond scheme, coupled with the Narendra Modi government’s decision to remove caps on the extent of corporate funding, by saying it would have “serious repercussions/impact on the transparency aspect of political finance/funding of political parties”.

Similarly, the Reserve Bank of India had also raised concerns about the electoral bond scheme in bearer form having the potential to increase black money circulation, money laundering, cross-border counterfeiting and forgery, which were ignored by the Centre.

Also read: Electoral Bond Scheme Results in Visible Dip in Transparent Corporate Donations

A reply filed in response to an RTI application in May 2020 revealed that electoral bonds worth Rs 19,000 crore had been printed. Of these, bonds worth more than Rs 6,200 crore have been sold in 13 phases altogether.

As per the response to an application filed under the Right to Information Act (RTI), electoral bonds worth Rs 19,000 crore have been printed so far. Of these, bonds worth more than Rs 6,200 crore have been sold in 13 phases altogether.