New Delhi: In a landmark judgment that could have a bearing on the disclosure of information by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), especially in cases of corruption and human rights violations, the Delhi high court has upheld a decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC), where, last year, it had issued directions to the IB to reveal the reason for its refusal to disclose to whistleblower Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi, its report that cleared his name in a number of cases and to provide a copy of the report to him.
Last year, The Wire had reported how the CIC had questioned the IB on its refusal to disclose to Chaturvedi its report that cleared his name in a number of cases. The IB had objected to the environment ministry sharing the report with Chaturvedi.
Whistleblower needed IB report to fight false charges
In an application to the CIC, Chaturvedi had said that obtaining the report would help him fight the violation of his human rights by those public servants whose corruption he had exposed as part of his duties as an IFS officer. He had argued that the harassment and false allegations against him were directly linked to his exposure of corruption in the Haryana government, as well as at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
In response, Central Information Commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu had released an order asking the IB to either send an affidavit or an official representative to present its reasons for not allowing the report to be shared with Chaturvedi.
IB directed to provide certified copy
In his order, Acharyulu after going through the arguments presented by both Chaturvedi and IB had directed that the officer be provided a certified copy of the report sought by him through a query filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act on December 5, 2015.
“The Commission would like to bring it to the notice of two public authorities (IB and the ministry of external affairs) that the petitioner has every right under RTI Act to complain and the commission has a duty to initiate penal proceedings against non-compliance of this order,” Acharyulu said.
Having gone into the merits of the arguments furnished by both the sides, the CIC concluded that “it is factually proved that appellant was put to extreme hardship by the corrupt political rulers and corrupt public servants in retaliation of his unstinted implementation of rule of law.”
Disclosure could cause no harm to core activity of IB
He also noted that that “the gist of IB report as furnished by IB in response to the RTI request of appellant in this case shows that its disclosure could cause no harm to core activity of security or intelligence of IB.”
Acharyulu held that Section 24 of RTI Act does not authorise the public authorities exempted under this section to block entire information held by them or generated and given to other public authorities en bloc, but exclusion from disclosure is limited to that which pertains to core functioning of ‘security’ and ‘intelligence’ aspect of exempted organisation.
Stating that “the IB report sought by appellant is not the information excluded from purview of disclosure by RTI Act,” he directed that it be provided to the whistle blower officer to whom it pertains.
IB had challenged CIC order in HC
The IB had moved the Delhi high court contending that the directions issued by the CIC were contrary to Section 8(1)(j) of the Act and the impugned order was without jurisdiction in view of Second Schedule of Section 24 of the Act, wherein, not only has the IB been exempted, but the information it provided to the government has also been specifically exempted.
It also argued that the information sought by Chaturvedi did not fall within the exception carved out by the proviso to Section 24 of the Act inasmuch as neither it pertains to any allegation of corruption nor of human rights violation within the IB.
The IB also insisted that in case the allegations of corruption or human rights violation were relatable specifically to the officers of the Intelligence Bureau would the exceptions carved out by the proviso apply.
Every information on allegation of corruption, human rights violation exempt from exclusion clause
Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva of the Delhi high court held that a reading of the proviso, “Provided that the information pertaining to the allegations of corruption and human rights violations shall not be excluded under this sub-section” in the light of the preceding phrase “or any information furnished by such organisations to that government” only leads to the conclusion that “if the information sought pertains to allegation of corruption and human right violation, it would be exempt from the exclusion clause, irrespective of the fact that the information pertains to the exempt intelligence and security organisations or not or pertains to an officer of the IB or not.”
As such the court held that “the information sought by the respondent falls in the category of being exempt from the exclusion clause and is liable to be supplied”.
IB report had exonerated Chaturvedi
Chaturvedi, a recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, had submitted before CIC that he needed a copy of the IB report, which was sent to the cabinet secretary and the ministry of environment and forests in August, 2014, on the issue of foisting false cases against him in retaliation against his investigation and reports against major corruption in Haryana. He had claimed that that because the harassment meted out to him was directly linked to his exposure of corruption both in Haryana government and AIIMS, where he was posted as deputy secretary, the IB report would become very crucial in ascertaining the reality and that he urgently needed a certified copy of the IB report to establish his innocence and to fight against harassment.
The officer had stated that his parent cadre, the ministry of environment and forests, had refused him a copy of the report as the IB had objected to their sharing it. This despite the note sheet stating IB had concluded that cases against him were false and the Central government also submitting in an affidavit before the central administrative tribunal in Delhi the same “gist of the IB report”.
Victimised for exposing corruption
In the proceedings before the CIC on April 12, 2016, Chaturvedi had submitted how he was victimised for exposing corruption in the government departments in Haryana. He had stopped large scale habitat destruction including felling of trees and poaching of wildlife in the Saraswati Wildlife Sanctuary by the contractors of Irrigation department. As the accused enjoyed political patronage he was transferred to Fatehabad in 2007. Here he stopped misuse of public funds to create private assets in the name of creation of a herbal park on private land belonging to a politician.
Chaturvedi who was then sent to AIIMS as deputy secretary and held additional charge of CVO had initiating action in about 200 cases of corruption. He had also exposed doctors making unauthorised foreign trips and a case of police seizing banned drugs worth Rs 6 crore from a vehicle supplying drugs to an on-campus pharmacy owned by an MLA. But under political pressure and due to a campaign by some corruption officials in AIIMS he was relieved of the additional charge of CVO.
IB seeks exemption under Section 24
When Acharyulu asked IB why it had denied a copy of the report to Chaturvedi, its chief public information officer (CPIO) Viplav submitted that “the report could not be provided since the IB, including any information furnished by IB, is exempted under Section 24 of the RTI Act, 2005.” The CPIO stated that after due consideration, he obtained advice of IB who conveyed their reservations in the matter. Had there been no reservations from IB, he would have definitely provided the requisite information to the applicant, he said.
Acharyulu said the main questions before the commission in deciding the issue were four. And barring the first question, on “whether IB report contains information pertaining to allegations of corruption or human rights violations?” to which the answer was “Yes”, the answer to all the other questions was in the negative. These questions were “Whether IB, an exempted organisation under S 24 can deny the copy of its report to the appellant?”, “Whether MoEF was right in simply obeying the objection raised by IB?”; and “Whether denial amounts to breach of RTI Act?”
Public interest visible in disclosure
Analysing the issue, the CIC said: “Public interest is clearly visible behind disclosure. None can deny that fighting false cases and seeking prosecution of corrupt persons is in the public interest. As a civil servant appellant also needs to protect his right to service as prescribed by law.”
Citing four presidential orders in favour of Chaturvedi over the years, Acharyulu said: “It is perhaps a sort of history in the career of appellant civil servant that president had to issue four orders to deal with harassment, by way of quashing charge sheets twice, revocation of suspension and expunging the adverse remarks in his annual report. No more proof is needed to say that Chaturvedi was being harassed by government of Haryana in revenge to his functioning according to rule of law, only to hide their corruption and to escape from extending hands of law.”
Role of IB, MoEF decried
The MoEF had contended that MoEF contended that it was discretion of exempted organisation and not the right of appellant to seek information. Responding to this, CIC stated that “The public authorities such as IB and MoEF should understand that exemption under Section 24 is not a licence to be secretive or silent on corrupt, unaccountable, non transparent ignoring all the legal guarantees of right to information under the RTI Act.”
Acharyulu further lamented that IB denied Chaturvedi the information despite knowing that he was a whistle blower. “The IB, in performance of its duty, established that appellant was being harassed for exposing corruption. It’s sad that same department which recognised and established fact of harassment of the appellant denied that copy to him.” He also pulled up the CPIO of MoEF for denying the information and thus failing to “to exercise his statutory duty using his independent discretion”.