New Delhi: The Central Information Commission, the body put in place to see to it that citizens can access relevant information through Right to Information Act, has stayed the order of the First Appellate Authority of the Reserve Bank of India for the release of information on non-performing assets and top defaulters of the Saraswat Co-operative Bank Limited in Mumbai.
The Central Information Commissioner Suresh Chandra chose to stay the RBI FAA’s order even though the Supreme Court had earlier held that such information was disclosable.
The appellant is this case was former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi.
In his RTI application, filed on October 25, 2019, Gandhi had sought information on Saraswat Co-operative Bank Ltd for the previous three years. He had asked for copies of RBI’s audit reports and inspection reports, warnings or advisories issued to the bank, fines or penalties levied on the bank, the grade allotted to the bank, its total non-performing assets, the report on quality of borrowers, and the list of its top five defaulters with the amounts of default.
Gandhi had mentioned in the application that “none of the information sought is exempted in RTI as per Supreme Court decision in Reserve Bank of India Vs. Jayantilal N. Mistry & Ors. (2016) 3 SCC 525.”
Saraswat Cooperative Bank Limited in Mumbai, filed a second appeal on April 27, 2021, before the CIC against an order of the RBI FAA on February 15, 2021. The bank submitted that the CPIO of RBI, through this order, informed it of their intention to disclose the information sought by RTI applicant Shailesh Gandhi.
Saraswat Bank then filed an urgent application on May 12, 2021 stating that CPIO of RBI through a letter on February 23, 2021 had called upon the bank to produce a stay order from CIC restraining RBI from disclosing the information and in the absence of such a stay order, the information would be disclosed to the applicant, i.e. Shailesh Gandhi.
The Information Commissioner, Suresh Chandra, recorded in his order of June 4, 2021 that Saraswat Bank in its appeal before CIC further prayed that “if the information, which is confidential in nature, once disclosed, irreparable damage and image loss will be caused to the Appellant (Saraswat Bank).”
In his order, Chandra said, “The Commission after adverting to the facts and circumstances of the case, and perusal of the records, observes that the appellant has prayed for interim order restraining the CPIO/FAA from releasing the information in terms of RTI application.”
Without giving any reasons for the decision, Chandra further said in the order, “In terms of the prayer, the second appeal is admitted and keeping in view of the urgency, the operation of the FAA’s order dated 15.2.2021 is stayed till further orders.”
Terming the development “bizarre”, Gandhi said the Supreme Court had dismissed pleas of Punjab National Bank and Union Bank to stay RBI’s decision to share inspection reports and defaulter’s lists of banks. And yet, he said, “The Central Information Commission has stayed the order of the First Appellate Authority of RBI to share the inspection reports of Saraswat Bank.”
Pointing out that RBI had refused the stay in line with the Jayantilal Mistry judgment, Gandhi said, “Saraswat Bank was smart…it approached the CIC who without any legal authority stayed the decision!”
The CIC, he said, blocked what the Supreme Court had not.
Following the CIC’s decision, Gandhi also filed an appeal before the CIC on June 19, 2021, seeking a recall of the stay order.
Gandhi recalled before the Chief Information Commissioner that in a landmark decision in Jayantilal N. Mistry, the Supreme Court had upheld 11 orders of the Central Information Commission. “The information sought is clearly covered by the Supreme Court decision, and hence the First Appellate Authority ordered that it should be given,” he said.
The RTI activist further wrote that “the Commission’s stay order on releasing the information has been given on the ground that that Saraswat Bank has claimed it is ‘confidential’.” He reminded the CIC that the “parliament has not exempted ‘confidential’ information and the Commission’s action is in gross violation of the Supreme Court order and erroneous.”
Gandhi also brought to the notice of the Commission, “The Supreme Court has not stayed its order and has specifically refused an application for review of the said judgment.” He added that though that SC order was not related to the facts of the case but it “laid down the law with a clear ratio decidendi.” However, the CIC’s stay order, he said, effectively nullifies the Supreme Court’s order and is bad in law.
The petitioner also recalled how the apex court had in Girish Mittal v. Parvati V. Sundaram (2019) held that RBI committed contempt by withholding disclosure of information that was directed to be given by it and that RBI was duty-bound to furnish all information relating to inspection reports and other material as per the dictum of Jayantilal N. Mistry (supra).
Stating that the apex court had also dismissed the miscellaneous applications filed by the banks, Gandhi wrote that the SC had therefore dealt with the issue comprehensively. He also told the CIC that “the power to stay any order has not been given to the Commission in the RTI Act by Parliament.”
“Thus the stay to the disclosure of information,” Gandhi added, “is contrary to the directions of the Supreme Court and disrespect for the clear decision of the apex court for transparency. It is also an exercise without the sanction of the RTI Act and hence must be withdrawn.”