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RTI APPLICATION SEEKING INFORMATION AGAINST PRIVATE PARTIES

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RTI APPLICATION SEEKING INFORMATION AGAINST PRIVATE PARTIES
By: Mr.M. GOVINDARAJAN
February 18, 2021
All Articles by: Mr.M. GOVINDARAJAN       View Profile
  • Contents

Introduction

The scheme of the RTI Act which was enacted for the avowed purpose to ensure greater and more effective transparency in public domain and to make Indian democracy more progressive, participative and meaningful has its own checks and balances in the said enactment. This Act has had operational life so far as for about 18 years and has ensured to the benefit of many, while the object of transparency and disclosures have kept many ills in the society under a check.

Exemption from disclosure

Section 8 of the Right to Information Act gives the list of information which is given exemption from disclosure.  Section 8 (1) of the said Act provides that notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen-

  1. 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;
  2. information which has been expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of court;
  3. information, the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature;
  4. information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;
  5. information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship, unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;
  6. information received in confidence from foreign government;
  7.  information, the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes;
  8. information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders;
  9. cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers: Provided 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; those matters which come under the exemptions specified in this section shall not be disclosed;
  10. information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information; the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person;

Section 8(2) of the Act provides that notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub­-section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.

Section 8(3) of the Act provides that subject to the provisions of clauses (a), (c) and (i) of sub­section (1), any information relating to any occurrence, event or matter which has taken place, occurred or happened twenty years before the date on which any request is made under section 6 shall be provided to any person making a request under that section.  Where any question arises as to the date from which the said period of twenty years has to be computed, the decision of the Central Government shall be final, subject to the usual appeals provided for in this Act.

Issue

The issue to be discussed in this article is whether the information in relation to private parties can be sought for by any person under the Act.  The information relating to private parties are generally not provided to any one especially in the tax matters.  In the case law discussed below the High Court confirmed that the information against private parties in respect of income tax matters cannot be furnished.

Case law

In Vinubhai Haribhai Patel (Malavia) v. Assistant Commissioner of Income tax and 7 others’ – 2021 (1) TMI 1089 – Gujarat High Court, the appellant filed the present appeal against the order of Single Judge of High Court.  The Single Judge High Court dismissed the Special Civil Application filed by the appellant against the order of Authorities of Income Tax Department under RTI Act for and the private parties.

The appellant filed an application before Income Tax Authorities under RTI Act seeking information with respect to private Respondent Tarunkumar Kantilal Raval and others with whom the present Petitioner has some litigation with regard to the land in question, which the appellant claims to have purchased and was again sold by the same Seller in favor of private Respondents also who claimed to be the Agriculturists under a Will.   The said application was rejected.  The appellant contended before Single Judge that a fraud was played by the private Respondents upon the Revenue Authorities of the State Government and therefore, it was in the larger public interest to disclose the said 'information' to the Petitioner notwithstanding Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act.   The Single Judge held that the appellant is not entitled to get the information in the form of his Income Tax Returns, Status of Agriculturists, disclosure as Business Income or not etc. and from the concerned Authorities of the Income Tax Department under provisions of the RTI Act.

The appellant contended the following before the High Court-

  • The appellant was entitled to such 'information' from the Income Tax Department, as it was in larger public interest to disclose such 'information' to the appellant as the respondents have not only evaded the income tax by making wrong disclosure about their status of being Agriculturists and therefore, even though the information disclosed to the Income Tax Department by such private respondents might amount to 'personal information', still it was in the larger public interest to disclose such 'information' to the appellant.
  •  Section 6(2) of the RTI Act does not require any reasons to be given in the Application requesting for the information except those that may be available with him and necessary for contacting him. 
  • The procedure for disposal of such request and application provided in Section 7 of the RTI Act, while the other provisions of remedial nature for further appeal, etc. are contained in Chapter 5 containing Sections 18 to 20 of the RTI Act.

There was no representation from the Department and the respondents.  The High Court analyzed the order of Single Judge.  The Single Judge held that the kind and nature of the information demanded by the petitioner clearly falls within the expression ‘personal information’. The personal character of the information demanded in the nature of Income Tax Returns of the private parties to get disclosure about the payment of tax by them which was again in order to know about their status as agriculturists declared to be so by the authorities in the legal proceedings, could be indeed said to be personal.  There was litigation between the petitioner and the said private persons relating to their property rights wherein the Will in favor of private parties was disputed and the disputes of civil nature were being agitated before the forum concerned and the court.  This information being personal in nature, could not be claimed as a matter of right by the petitioner, rather they were clearly exempted information under Section 8(1)(j).   The contention of larger public interest justifying the disclosure does not exist.

The High Court analyzed the provisions of section 8 of RTI Act and section 138 of Income Tax Act which provides that no information or document shall be furnished or produced by a public servant in respect of such matters relating to such class of assessees or except to such authorities as may be specified in the order.  In Girish Ramchandra Deshpande vs. Central information Commissioner and others [2012 (10) TMI 218 - SUPREME COURT], the Supreme Court has categorically laid down that the 'information' about Income Tax Returns amounts to 'personal information' within the meaning of Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act .  The Income Tax Act itself provides for a complete mechanism to investigate into the affairs of an Assessee on the basis of information, evidence and material on record of the Income Tax Department and such 'information' cannot be loosely parted with in favor of the Applicant or third parties under the garb of wider scope under the provisions of the RTI Act. 

The High Court observed that it is in the nature of a complaint against the private Respondents to the Income Tax Department, rather than any bona fide public interest sought to be served by the disclosure of such information about the status of the private Respondents as agriculturists or not, whether their right to get such status by way of a Will executed by a Testator is sustainable in law or not, etc.   They are not the 'information' in public domain to be made available to any third party.

The High Court was satisfied that the order of the learned Single Judge does not require any interference in the present intra-­Court appeal and the same being without merit deserves to be dismissed. 

 

By: Mr.M. GOVINDARAJAN - February 18, 2021

 

 

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