The UPA government has been hit by a contradiction with four of its Union ministers disclosing their income tax returns while another three refusing triggering a debate on whether disclosing income details of top public servants are in public interest or not.
India's information watchdog the Central Information Commission (CIC) on Thursday would aim to settle the debate on Thursday when it considers an appeal of a civil society group, Association of Democratic Rights, seeking income tax returns of three unwilling union ministers --- Sachin Pilot, Ajit Singh and Kumari Selja.
Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of the association had filed an RTI application with the Income Tax department, seeking income tax returns of a few Union cabinet ministers.
The department considered the information as of third party and as per the Right To Information Act sought permission of the ministers to provide information. None of them agreed.
"The information sought under the said RTI application relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relation to any public activity or interest," the department told Bairwal on basis of replies received from the three ministers.
Social justice and empowerment minister Selja said that public interest in disclosure out-weights in importance any possible harm or injury to the interest of assessee. Civil Aviation minister Ajit Singh wanted to know why Bairwal needed such personal information and Pilot said the information under the RTI law cannot be divulged.
On other hand, three present cabinet ministers --- Ajay Maken, Subodh Kant Sahay, Pratik Prakashbapu Patil and one former minister Ambika Soni --- had voluntarily disclosed their income tax returns on the Prime Minister's website. Maken even offered to put income tax returns of his daughter in public domain.
However, the income department has also favoured the minister refusing to divulge the returns quoting an earlier CIC view that income tax returns are definitely personal information "Disclosure of assessment details may results in an undue invasion to the privacy of an individual," the CIC had said in 2008.
Bairwal in his appeal to the Supreme Court said the average increase in assets of MPs and MLAs as per declaration with the Election Commission has been very high --- 289% for Lok Sabha MPs and 300% for MLAs.
Only way for citizens to access their sources of income is income tax returns and disclosing it would result in more informed voters, therefore it is in "larger public interest", he has argued.
The CIC has issued notice to the Income Tax department asking why the appeal filed by Bairwal should not be considered.