Can Baahubali Lift Steel Screens Around Demonetization?

Central Information Commissioner Professor Sridhar Acharyulu in a landmark order directed every public institution including RBI, Ministry of Finance and Prime Minister’s Office to divulge all information pertaining to demonetization.
Can Baahubali Lift Steel Screens Around DemonetiZation?

Opinion

S Viraat from New Delhi

RBI violates RTI

The RBI has built steel walls of secrecy around the demonetization details, refusing every RTI question ignoring totally its mandatory duties and obligations under RTI Act. Is there any Baahubali who could break those iron curtains, a CIC order questioned, recently.

In its India Development Update report, World Bank said India’s GDP growth may have slowed to 6.8% in 2016-17, from 7.9% in the previous year, as November’s note ban decision slowed activity in cash-dependent sectors, as reported by Hindustan Times today (30.5.2017) The demonetisation drive that weeded out ₹ 15.44 lakh crore of high denominated currency notes impacted the poor and the vulnerable the most, it said.

The RBI refused to answer the question: Why were ₹ 1000 and ₹ 500 notes demonetised by the government? RBI feels that the reasons behind the sudden announcement cannot be made public. The monetary policy regulator also refused to give any details about the time it will take to replenish the currency notes. “The query is in the nature of seeking future date of an event which is not defined as information as per Section 2(f) of the RTI Act,” RBI said in response to an RTI query.

The RTI Act breached by RBI

The RBI has ignored a very important statutory obligation on it imposed by the RTI. The following are the provisions which the RBI has to suo motu disclose without anybody asking for it. But the RBI refused repeatedly the RTI applications for the information which it should have voluntarily disclosed.

Section 4(1) Every Public Authority shall publish (b) (iii) the procedure followed in the decision making process, including channels of supervision and accountability

(vii) the particulars of any arrangement that exists for consultation with, or representation by, the members of the public in relation to the formulation of its policy or implementation thereof;

(viii) a statement of the boards, councils, committees and other bodies consisting of two or more persons constituted as its part or for the purpose of its advice, and as to whether meetings of those boards, accessible for public;

(c) publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public;

(d) provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to affected persons.

RBI’s unjustifiable excuses

PTI reported on 29 December 2016 that the Bankers’ Bank refused to disclose reasons behind the demonetisation of about ₹ 20 lakh crore of currency in the country citing Section 8(1)(a) of the Right to Information Act, which says, “Information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” Several judicial orders mandated the PIOs to justify the rejection under exception, instead of merely mentioning the section 8. RBI did not give any reasons as to how exemption would apply in the given case as the decision was already taken and there was no way that disclosure of information would have fitted in any of the reasons cited in section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. The factly.in reported on 21 December 2016 that the RBI refused to disclose the list of meetings and their minutes held before the demonetization decision. RBI said it was sensitive matter. Following is the RTI question and RBI response.

What is Sec 8(1)(a) of the RTI act?

Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI act exempts the following information from disclosure, ‘Information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence’

In another report dated 30 January 2017 the factly.in said: In yet another shocking response to an application under RTI, RBI refused to provide information on supply & indent of new notes. However, the appellate authority of RBI had a different opinion. This is request and response:

No to minutes of meetings

In spite of Section 4(1)(b), (C) and (d) of RTI Act, the Reserve Bank of India has refused to allow access to minutes of meetings held to decide on the issue of demonetization of ₹ 1000 and ₹ 500 notes announced on November 8.

Responding to an RTI application filed by activist Venkatesh Nayak, the Bankers’ Bank refused to disclose the minutes of the crucial meetings of Central Board of Directors on the issue of demonetization citing section 8(1)(a) of the transparency law as per the report of DNAIndia dated 25 Decemeber  2016.

One RTI activist Parvinder Singh Kitna souight, on November 17, copies of letters received from the ministries concerned or departments and PM for starting the process in this regard, when the process of demonetisation of high currency notes was started in RBI, and copies of the final legal and financial opinion on the subject given by the respective offices, etc. The CPIO of RBI, in reply to the question about date of decision, said RBI had issued instructions on the basis of the Government of India’s notification on November 8 and the same was available on the website of the finance ministry’s website. For other questions RBI claimed that the information sought related to sensitive matters pertaining to discontinuation/withdrawal of banknotes. The information is exempt from disclosures under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, it said.

Times of India news reported on 30 December 2016 that, earlier, PMO’s CPIO had in reply to Kitna’s RTI application on December 16 had also refused to divulge information citing another provision of the Act. However, the RTI activist argued that though the RTI Act provided some exemption, but also stated that “the decisions of Council of ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over,” and that the information which could not be denied to Parliament or a state legislature shall not be denied to any person. He said he would file an appeal with the appellate authority, as provided by the RTI Act, against this refusal.

On 16 March 2017, the RBI has refused to answer ‘why note conversion was not allowed till 31 March’ under the RTI Act, claiming the query does not come under the definition of ‘information’

The question was: Why was not the conversion of old currency notes allowed till 31 March 2017 for Indians as assured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech on 8 November 2016 announcing demonetisation? The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has refused information sought claiming that the query does not come under the definition of “information” of RTI Act.

The RTI Act defines “information” as “any material in any form” held by or under the control of a public authority. The definition covers “any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, emails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force”.

The RBI refused to share file notings on the decision to limit currency conversion window till 31 March only for NRIs saying it would be against the economic interests of the state. If demonetization is in economic interests, how can the reasons or information about it is against economic interests of the state?

The applicant had sought reasons, as “recorded” in the files of the RBI, behind the decision to not allow conversion of currency till 31 March for Indians as assured by the PM.

There several judgments by Supreme Court, High Courts and CIC besides several State Information Commissions held if opinion or advice is available in the records of the public authority, it will come under the definition of the “information” under the RTI Act. The RBI has conveniently ignored section 8(2) of the RTI Act which allows disclosure of information, even if it is exempted, if it is in larger public interest.

The RBI has stonewalled almost every RTI query pertaining to demonetisation on one or the other excuse ignoring several mandatory provisions. It had refused to respond if the views of finance minister Arun Jaitley or chief economic advisor were taken before demonetisation was announced, it had also refused to disclose reasons behind the sudden move, among others.

CIC’s order

In a recent order, the Central Information Commission Professor M Sridhar Acharyulu, observed that it was the duty of every government department concerned with demonetisation to spell out all relevant facts and reasons behind the radical move. The PTI reported on May 28, 2017:  In what could be the first comments of the transparency panel on the lack of information about the notes ban decision, Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu said any attempt to withhold information would generate serious doubts about the economy. He said the attitude of building “steel forts” around the decision needed to be done away with.

Can Baahubali break steel forts of secrecy?

“It is very difficult to reconcile with the attitude of building steel forts–that could not be broken even by Baahubali–around the public affair of demonetisation in a democratic nation, if governed by rule of law,” he said. He was referring to the 2015 blockbuster film Baahubali.

The observations assume importance in the background of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Reserve Bank of India and the Finance Ministry rejecting RTI applications which sought the reasons behind the notes ban.  Acharyulu was deciding a case of an RTI applicant, Ramswaroop, who had sought information from the post office in Pinto Park Air Force area about the total currency exchanged there, the people who exchanged it and the number of customers who provided their identification proof for exchange. The postal department claimed they did not have the information in a consolidated form.

Directing the department to disclose the information, Acharyulu also said all public authorities should reveal information about the move which has affected every citizen of the country.

“All the public authorities have a moral, constitutional, RTI-based democratic responsibility to explain to each and every citizen who is affected by demonetisation, the information, reasons, impact and remedial measures, if discovered any negative impact,” he said. He said the CPIO should not have brushed aside this RTI request which reflected his blatant anti-transparency attitude.

He said each person was affected by the decision and even beggars, rikshaw pullers, push-cart sellers reeled under this stroke. “If the suffering was just temporary and there will be windfalls in future, let that also be told to the people officially by each and every public authority concerned with demonetisation,” he said. He said if public authorities shy away from disclosing any information related to notes ban, it would raise serious questions in the mind of general public.

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