The Supreme Court of India in a landmark order dismissed several applications made by some private and public sector banks praying for recalling the 2015 judgment against the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) vis a vis making it accountable under Right to Information Act (RTI).
The Supreme Court had directed the RBI to make its annual inspection reports and loan defaulters list public under RTI Act 2005. The court in its detailed judgment said that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was duty-bound to uphold the public interest by revealing these details under RTI.
The recall applications were filed by several banks which included State Bank of India (SBI). The case was listed before a Supreme Court division bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Vineet Saran on April 28th this year. The banks argued that the SC’s judgment had not considered important legal and constitutional provisions. They said that the order was violating the “right to privacy”, which has been held to be an inseparable part of the fundamental right to life and personal liberty under article 21 the Constitution of India as per its Justice K S Puttaswamy judgement.
“A close scrutiny of the applications for recall makes it clear that in substance, the applicants are seeking a review of the judgment in Jayantilal N.Mistry (supra). Therefore, we are of the considered opinion that these applications are not maintainable. We make it clear that we are not dealing with any of the submissions made on the correctness of the judgment of this Court in Jayantilal N Mistry,” the Supreme Court order reads.
The court further opined that the RBI must act with transparency and not hide information that might embarrass banks and that it is duty-bound to comply with the provisions of the RTI Act and disclose the information. While examining its previous judgment, the court also held that there was no provision in the Supreme Court Rules for a recall of the judgment.
The court added that parties should not be allowed to file applications to reopen concluded judgments of the court.
Background of case
Jayantilal Mistry, an RTI activist from Gujrat, way back in 2010 had sought information under RTI Act 2005 from the RBI about a Gujarat-based cooperative bank. The information pertained to the annual inspection reports prepared by RBI which had not been put into public domain. Mistry filed an application under RTI Act 2005 in October 2010 before the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The RBI, however, did not provide the requested details. Information seeker Jayantilal Mistry then filed an appeal before the designated First Appellate Authority (FAA) of the RBI. On March 30th, 2011, the FAA disposed of the appeal by upholding the order of the CPIO. Aggrieved information seekers finally filed 2nd appeal before the Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi. The CIC in its judgment November 1st , 2011 order, directed the RBI to provide information before 30th November 2011. Aggrieved by the decision of the CIC, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) filed a writ petition before the Delhi High Court for quashing of the CIC’s judgment. The High Court, while issuing notice, stayed the operation of CIC’s order. The matter was finally challenged before the Supreme Court of India.
What info was sought?
A statutory inspection was conducted by RBI inspectors between May 2010 to June 2010 in the Makarpura Industrial Estate Cooperative Bank Ltd in Gujarat. This inspection had been conducted by the RBI under the Banking Regulation Act (BRA). Subsequently, in October 2010, the RTI activist Jayantilal Mistry had sought the information on the following points from the RBI :
1.Procedure, rules and regulations of inspection being carried out on cooperative banks.
2.Last RBI investigation and audit report carried out by Shri Santosh Kumar from 23rd April 2010 to 6th May 2010 that was sent to the Registrar of the Cooperative of Gujarat state.
3.Last 20 years inspection report carried out in Makarpura Industrial Estate Cooperative Bank Ltd along with names of inspectors and action taken report.
4. Reports on all cooperative banks went on liquidation plus action taken against all Managers and Directors for recovery of public funds and powers utilized by RBI and analysis and procedure adopted.
In a bid to get some relief from the Supreme Court on the issue, the apex court will consider in July petitions filed by various banks, including SBI and HDFC banks, seeking a direction to RBI to exempt information related to their customers, trade secrets, risk ratings, any unpublished price sensitive information from the Right to Information Act.
The Supreme Court bench led by Justice L Nageswara Rao posted the matter for hearing in July first week. Terming disclosure of inspection reports as invasion of privacy of banks, their customers and employees, the petition led by HDFC Bank further told the SC that the RTI Act does not apply to private entities like them as they are not public authorities under the Act and therefore, information pertaining to such banks and financial institutions and their customers and employees cannot be sought/provided under the RTI Act.
The Supreme Court in its 2015 judgment made a detailed reference to section 2(f) of the RTI Act 2005 which explains in detail what an information means ? The RBI collects inspection reports from various banks and thus these reports fall within the definition of ‘information’ which must be provided to citizens. Ideally, the RBI should make these reports public through its website. By dismissing the recall application, the Supreme Court has made it clear that citizens have the right to make banking institutions accountable, especially at a time when big loan defaulters lists and inspection reports are always kept confidential by banks. This order applies to banking institutions of Jammu & Kashmir as well. Let us hope they make voluntary disclosure of RBI’s inspection reports as mandated under section 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005. I am sure transparency activists and journalists will make best use of RTI to get these inspection reports from RBI & other banks as well.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen fellow. He is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement
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